Bierhorst, John (William) 1936-
BIERHORST, John (William) 1936-
Born September 2, 1936, in Boston MA; son of John William (a mechanical engineer) and Sadie Belle (a commercial artist; maiden name, Knott) Bierhorst; married Jane Elizabeth Byers (a graphic designer), June 25, 1965; children: Alice Byers. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1958.
Home— P.O. Box 10, West Shokan, NY 12494.
Writer. Former concert pianist and writer for an advertising agency.
The Nature Conservancy, Rondout-Esopus Land Conservancy (board of advisors), American Anthropological Association.
Grants from Americas Society, 1972, 1979, and 1998, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1979, 1986, and 2003, and National Endowment for the Arts, 1986; American Library Association notable book citations for In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations, Black Rainbow: Legends of the Incas and Myths of Ancient Peru, The Girl Who Married a Ghost: Tales from the North American Indian, A Cry from the Earth: Music of the North American Indians, The Whistling Skeleton: American Indian Tales of the Supernatural, The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians, Spirit Child: A Story of the Nativity, and The Naked Bear: Folktales of the Iroquois.
A Cry from the Earth: Music of the North American Indians, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1979.
(Translator) Spirit Child: A Story of the Nativity, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
A Nahuatl-English Dictionary and Concordance to the Cantares Mexicanos: With an Analytic Transcription and Grammatical Notes, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1985.
The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1990, reprinted with a new afterword, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Codex Chimalpopoca: The Text in Nahuatl: With a Glossary and Grammatical Notes, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1992.
(Translator) History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1992.
The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
Mythology of the Lenape: Guide and Texts, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1995.
The Ashokan Catskills: A Natural History, Purple Mountain Press (Fleischmanns, NY), 1995.
(Translator) Ü l: Four Mapuche Poems, Latin American Literary Review Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1998.
The People with Five Fingers: A Native Californian Creation Tale, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, Marshall Cavendish (New York, NY), 2000.
Is My Friend at Home?: Pueblo Fireside Tales, illustrated by Wendy Watson, Farrar Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 2001.
The Fire Plume: Legends of the American Indians, illustrated by Alan E. Cober, Dial (New York, NY), 1969.
The Ring in the Prairie: A Shawnee Legend, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, Dial (New York, NY), 1970.
In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1971.
(And translator) Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature: "Quetzalcoatl," "The Ritual of Condolence," "Cuceb," "The Night Chant," Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1974, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1984.
Songs of the Chippewa, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1974.
The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1976, Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States, 1995.
(And translator) Black Rainbow: Legends of the Incas and Myths of Ancient Peru, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1976.
The Girl Who Married a Ghost: Tales from the North American Indian, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1978.
The Whistling Skeleton: American Indian Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1982.
(And translator) The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
(And translator) Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs, Stanford University Press (Stanford, CA), 1985.
(And translator) The Monkey's Haircut and Other Stories Told by the Maya, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.
The Naked Bear: Folktales of the Iroquois, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.
Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Wendy Watson, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1987.
Lightning Inside You and Other Native American Riddles, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.
The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: The Iroquois Story of Creation, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
On the Road of Stars: Native American Night Poems and Sleep Charms, illustrated by Judy Pederson, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1994.
The White Deer and Other Stories Told by the Lenape, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1995.
The Dancing Fox: Arctic folktales, illustrated by Mary K. Okheena, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.
The Deetkatoo: Native American Stories about Little People, illustrated by Ron Hilbert Coy, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1998.
Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions ("Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library" series), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of "Why There Is Death" to The Big Book for Our Planet, edited by Ann Durell and others, Dutton Children's (New York, NY), 1993. Editorial associate for The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Expanded Edition, edited by Maynard Mack, Norton (New York, NY), 1995; editorial advisor for the Smithsonian's "Studies in Native American Literatures" series, 1990—; sound recordings include American Indian Folklore, Children's Book Council (New York, NY), 1979.
John Bierhorst became interested in Native American cultures in the early 1960s, which led him to create many volumes of translated tales, retellings, and studies that have been enjoyed by both children and adults over more than four decades.
Bierhorst studied engineering but switched to English, and after graduating, he studied piano. His wife-to-be, Jane Byers, who lived across the hall, was already a designer and art director for children's books when they met. While in Mexico City, they were visiting the Museum of Anthropology when he spied an Aztec poem translated to Spanish that had been carved into a stone wall. Bierhorst located the original manuscript that contained the poem and translated it into English. He continued to translate and edit the stories that he uncovered, many of which had never before appeared in English.
His first volume, The Fire Plume: Legends of the American Indians, contains versions of seven tales from the collection of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who had recorded stories told to him by his Chippewa wife. Bierhorst tells them in a way that makes them more understandable to younger readers.
Bierhorst's books are records of the oral histories of Native tribes and a source of tribal customs. Many are unique, such as Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables, a collection of Latin and Greek fables that were carried by the Spaniards to the New World in the sixteenth century. These were blended with traditional Aztec tales, and include the character of the trickster coyote.
Bierhorst wrote a series of three volumes that take a more anthropological approach. Mythology of North America, Mythology of South America, and Mythology of Mexico and Central America study similarities and differences between the various regions, including their mythology. Ursula K. Le Guin, who reviewed Mythology of North America in the New York Times Book Review, called Bierhorst's myths "moving and fascinating," and added that his "descriptions of the background and history, the connections and crossovers, of the myths and mythologies, and his glimpses of the world views of the various peoples and regions, are varied and thoughtful."
Lightning Inside You and Other Native American Riddles is the first collection of Native riddles ever published. In The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment, Bierhorst studies the environment and regional attitudes toward the place of man, animals, and plants within it. Seen here are ways in which Native peoples have cared for the land through crop rotation and for animals in established sanctuaries. Bierhorst suggests that modern society reconnect with the environment and adopt Native practices that protect it.
The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, first published in 1976, was reprinted in 1995 by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. Annette van Dyke reviewed the reprinted edition in Melus, noting that "not only has Bierhorst selected these tales, but in some cases he has translated them from the German, and in others he has made small changes in the wording—contributing to a very readable collection." The stories are arranged in sections according to theme, such as "Setting the World in Order," "The Family Drama," "Fair and Foul" (trickster tales), and "Crossing the Threshold." These are then subdivided into smaller sections.
After writing so many books about Native Americans in other areas, Bierhorst realized that little of the native literature from the Indians near his own home had ever been preserved in print. In The White Deer and Other Stories Told by the Lenape, Bierhorst records many stories from the Delaware, or Lenape as they call themselves, the original inhabitants of New Jersey, southeastern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania.
Bierhorst next compiled eighteen Inuit stories for The Dancing Fox and twenty-two tales for The Deetkatoo: Native American Stories about Little People. The latter volume features tales about the kindly magical beings of American Native folklore.
Bierhorst extends his study of Native traditions with Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions, a collection of more than 100 stories from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the American Southwest that reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism. The first part of the book consists of Inca and Aztec legends, while the second part features stories in a variety of genres, including moral, heroic, anecdotal, religious, and comic. While some of the short tales are silly, others are scary and disturbing. Riddles are also included. Kliatt 's Patricia Moore noted that these twentieth-century tales are "set out in the format of a velorio, or wake, nine nights of stories told to keep those mourning the dead awake throughout the night."
Sheila Shoup noted in School Library Journal that most of the stories in this volume are translated into English here for the first time, "making it worthy of any collection." They are listed in the accompanying guide titled "Register of Tale Types and Selected Motifs." Shoup wrote that "casual readers will gain maximum enjoyment by picking out whatever strikes their fancy."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Horn Book, May-June, 1997, Barbara Bader, "'They Shall Not Wither': John Bierhorst's Quiet Crusade for Native American Literature," pp. 268-281.
Kliatt, January, 2004, Patricia Moore, review of Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, Jonathan Kirsch, review of The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indian, p. 8.
Melus, summer, 1995, Annette van Dyke, review of The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, p. 161.
New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1982, Michele Slung, review of The Glass Slipper: Charles Perrault's Tales of Times Past, p. 27; September 1, 1985, Ursula K. Le Guin, review of The Mythology of North America, p. 7; October 19, 1986, review of The Monkey's Haircut and Other Stories Told by the Maya, p. 44; November 22, 1987, Blake Smith, review of Dr. Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables, p. 44; October 2, 1988, Carol F. Drisko, review of The Mythology of South America, p. 35; January 6, 1991, review of The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 28; November 16, 1997, Natalie Kusz, review of the Dancing Fox, Arctic Folk Tales, p. 30.
School Library Journal, May, 2002, Sheila Shoup, review of Latin American Folktales, p. 180.
John (William) Bierhorst
I've never been sure what an "author" is. Like physicians who call themselves "doctors," and lawyers who say they are "attorneys," writers appreciate being called authors. It's more of an honorific title than a word that tells what you actually do.
Yet there are authors, people who have their names on books, who are not even writers. Perhaps I am one of them.
It is true that I have written a few books from beginning to end. The Mythology of North America could count as one. Another would be A Cry from the Earth: Music of the North American Indians. But most of my books are translations, or collections that include translations. In my own mind I am a translator, specializing in one thing: the native literature of the Americas.
What I want is for readers to appreciate not my own writing but the poetry, myths, and stories of the American Indians. This has come to be an important idea for me. Really, it is a political idea. It means that I identify with the struggle of Native Americans for more land and more control over their lives. And it means that I believe literature, like art and music, is part of a people's strength.
Recently I met a ninety-four-year-old woman who said she had been born and raised in the mountains of Virginia, mountains very much like the Catskills of New York, where we happened to be and where I have lived for twenty years. Hard of hearing, my new acquaintance sat to one side while the rest of us talked. When the conversation turned to astrology (no thanks to me), her hearing improved.
"What is your birthday?" she asked me.
"What day in September?"
With that she broke into a smile. August-September, it seemed, was one of her specialties. Then with great charm and cleverness she began telling me about myself. "And finally," she said, "you are a perfectionist."
She was right.
Unfortunately, being a perfectionist is not the same as being perfect. What it means is that you worry too much over every detail. But it can have advantages if you are a translator.
In my workroom at home there are shelves from floor to ceiling filled with dictionaries, manuscripts, and microfilms, many of which have to do with Aztec, the Indian language I know best. If I hear of a new book or article about Aztec, I write away for it, then wait impatiently for it to arrive. With so many sources to draw upon I can spend hours searching for the meaning of one word. Then, when I think I know the meaning, I worry over the best way to put it. That, too, can take much time.
I also work with Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and German. This is necessary because many Indian texts have been recorded in one or another of these languages and must be translated if they are to be read in English.
I like languages, but I do not have a natural gift for them. I wish I knew them better than I do.
In the summer of 1940, when I was nearly four years old, my father took my mother and me to New Orleans for his parents' golden wedding anniversary. My father's family was very large, and I believe all of them must have been there, crowded into the old house on Saint Claude Avenue. A priest was there, too, for the purpose of remarrying my grandparents. In 1890 my grandmother, a Catholic, had endured a Protestant ceremony for the sake of her husband's family, and now, fifty years later, she was determined to be really married.
That evening, after the nuptials, people squeezed into the dining room to drink punch and view the gifts. The room was ablaze with light, as I could tell by looking straight up over my head. Down where I stood, at knee level in a packed crowd of adults, it was like being at the bottom of a well. When someone picked me up, I could see beautiful things on the table and on the sideboard, all shining and gold. In fact they were not very costly dishes and knickknacks, covered in what could be called a gold wash. I now have some of those pieces here in the Catskills.
When the crowd had dispersed, my grandfather told me it was time to go upstairs to bed. I resisted.
Then, to humor me, he picked me up, and, as I remember hearing it, he said: "Morgan free kooken zee pon-kooken, that means 'Tomorrow morning we get up early and cook pancakes.'"
I know now that the correct spelling is Morgen früh kuchen sie pfannkuchen. And the translation is "Tomorrow morning they get up early and cook pancakes." The "we" was a nice way of saying that the women would cook the breakfast. My grandfather never went into the kitchen except to eat.
Nor did he ever speak German to me again, nor had he ever spoken it to my father, who did not know a single word. I wish it had been otherwise. That memory of June 25, 1940, is my only living link with the language of my father's ancestors.
If my grandfather or my father had been able to teach me German, I wouldn't have had to work so hard at it later. More than that, I might have felt more comfortable with foreign languages in general. It would have been a help.
After the golden wedding, we went back north to Ohio where, until the year before, we had lived in a big-city neighborhood of old houses and gloomy dooryards. I had been the only child on the block and had spent hours by myself digging in the dust at the foot of the kitchen steps and sitting on the living room sofa pulling goose feathers out of the cushion.
In the late summer of 1939 we had moved to a village north of the city. This was a clean little town of clustered houses surrounded by fields and deep woods. The houses were filled with children, and there was activity in the streets every day until long after the street lamps came on. In the night hours, under the artificial light, there would be games of beckon, stick ball, mother-may-I, and prisoner's base. But I was not quite old enough to join these games and continued to keep my own company.
I remember a boy named Strippy, who jumped on top of me and pounded me with his fists, and a girl named Roberta, who bit my finger. There was also a gruff, bigger girl named Janet who sent her cocker spaniel after me with a cry of "Sic him!"
In the case of Strippy, my mother was as disgusted with me as she was with Strippy. "Use your fists," she told me.
In November of 1940, five months after the golden wedding, I ran away from home. It was a momentous decision, and it still surprises me to think that I actually went through with it.
I didn't get farther than the edge of the woods, however, and pretty soon I could hear my mother coming up behind me. "What are you doing?" she asked, as though nothing had happened.
"Oh, I'm just picking up sticks to burn in the furnace," I said, as though nothing had happened.
Then she picked me up and carried me home to my father, and we all pretended to be cheerful.
I knew that my parents were intelligent and loving. And wherever they are now, I salute them.
But I also knew that I had no choice. If a four-year-old boy runs away, who will pick him up when he tries to hitchhike on the highway? Who will give him a job in a strange city? Who will rent him a room?
The next fall I was brought to Miss Campbell's kindergarten and left there every morning from eight-thirty to twelve. Miss Campbell was a young woman with dark hair, who did not have to wear lipstick and rouge to be pretty. She taught us to sing "You Are My Sunshine" and the song about the teapot that children still sing in kindergartens everywhere. I think Miss Campbell must have been a gentle person, because she never struck us.
But she didn't have to. Her weapon was food.
At ten-thirty we were given our choice of a cookie or four small cheese crackers. No one voluntarily took cheese crackers. But if you had crossed Miss Campbell during the first two hours, you had to settle for three of the crackers. In severe cases, just two.
I was quiet that year and received a cookie every day.
My next year's teacher, for first grade, was a woman I will call Miss F. She wore high heels and high lacy collars.
That year there was something different. It was called "rest period." Every afternoon the shades would be pulled down, and we would lay our heads on our desks and cover our faces with our arms. Wide-eyed staring was not allowed, and every face had to be covered. It was a form of torture that even then I recognized as enforced sleep.
Once, during this rest period, I walked up to the teacher's desk and asked a question. She barely tolerated it and told me to go back to my place. Halfway across the room I stopped and pretended to tie my shoe. When she told me to hurry, I ignored her. Then she swooped down on me with her hands going like a buzz saw. I thought she must have ten hands, slapping me everywhere at once until I landed back at my chair.
I disliked Miss F. But I liked her, too. I suppose that is every child's fate. Miss F., after all, taught me to read and do numbers; and if you don't know things, you can never be free.
At about this time I had my first camp. A "camp" was any kind of playhouse, especially one you made yourself and especially one that was outdoors. The camp I am thinking of, however, was just a big wooden box set up in our front yard.
A few years later I began making real camps in the back yard, gabled structures with long ridgepoles and sides thatched with hay. Other boys made camps, too, but mine were the biggest and the most perfectly constructed. A good camp takes hours to build.
Still later I made tree camps, all with sticks picked up in the woods, lashed with weed stems. A real camp cannot be made with materials borrowed from the industrial world. No milled lumber, no nails, no rope. Also, the food eaten in camps has to be from the woods. Blackberries, hickory nuts, things like that.
My most perfect camp had completely straight walls, framed with hardwood sticks and finished with a matting of tightly woven goldenrod stems. The location was good, too. It was situated in a berry patch that had both blackberries and dewberries close at hand.
Each year my camp was farther from the house, until finally it was in the deep woods, very far from home.
The end of summer was a painful time of year. I hated to be in school, hated to leave my camp. Nevertheless, I always got to class on time and almost never missed a day.
When second grade started, my teacher was Miss Hause (say "Haws")—mispronounced "House" by the principal every time he came into the room. In the middle of the year we all had to unlearn it and start calling her Mrs. Blair.
Despite that, Mrs. Blair was a modern woman. She taught us to sing "Pistol Packin' Mama!" and encouraged us to stand up in front of the class and tell jokes.
I remember telling a couple of these little stories. One of them was decidedly off-color, at least for second grade in the year 1943. It was about a slop jar. Mrs. Blair would not permit me to finish it, and I can still see the rage in her face as she ordered me to sit down.
Adults recall childhood as a time of happiness. But for a child, happiness is in the future.
My kindergarten classroom had been in the school basement next to the cafeteria, and for first and second grades we moved up to the ground floor. But the big children were all upstairs on the second floor, beginning with third grade. It was an important transition.
My third-grade teacher was Mrs. Ava Ramsey, a middle-aged woman and no doubt a grandmother. She had short gray hair and wore flowered dresses. Thinking back, I realize that the youngest children were given the most inexperienced and probably the most insecure teachers, the ones who never looked you in the eye. But when Mrs. Ramsey looked at you, she really saw you. You felt like a person.
It was Mrs. Ramsey who introduced me to the Aztec language. Not just me, but everybody else as well. The Aztec words were in our geography book. When we came to them, it was my turn to read, and I stood up and pronounced them as best I could. One of the words was Ixtacihuatl (white woman), and the other was Popocatepetl (smoking mountain). These are the names of volcanoes near Mexico City.
Carefully following the directions in the geography book, I pronounced the two words ee-sta-see-WAT-l and po-po-CAT-a-pet-l. Those are acceptable pronunciations for someone whose language is English. But I know now that the Aztecs pronounced them more like eeshta-SEE-watl, and po-po-ca-TAY-petl.
I am confident that Mrs. Ramsey is not still alive, If she were, I would send her a copy of the Aztec-English dictionary I compiled a few years ago, with an inscription that would read: "To Ava Ramsey, with much affection, from her student."
My more serious work with Aztec began in 1968, three years after I married Jane Byers. Some of the people who read this essay will know who she is. In fact, some will know her better than they know me.
Jane is a graphic designer, especially a designer of children's books. She has been in the book business longer than I have. She got me started in children's publishing, and everything I know about it begins with her.
In 1968 Jane and I were in Mexico City. There in the Museum of Anthropology at Chapultepec Park, chiseled into a stone wall were—still are—the words to an Aztec song, translated into Spanish. It is a haunting little verse, something about a prisoner longing for home. I think a tear rolled down my cheek.
If I had been a child I would not have been so easily impressed. But I was already an adult, and adults do not always think clearly. It took me years to realize that the translation was wrong and that the song has nothing to do with homesickness. But those few words got me started, and before long I had found the manuscript from which they had been taken and had begun a translation project that would last until 1985.
While I was working on my edition of Aztec poetry, called Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs, and on the dictionary that goes with it, I came across two Aztec texts that I thought would make good children's books. One was a story of the Nativity, which eventually became Spirit Child. The other was a collection of fables that turned into Doctor Coyote.
When I have an idea for a book, I bring it first to Jane, and we talk about it. "Is it a picture book?" is the first question that comes up. To be a picture book a text must not be too long, and it must have a flow of word-images that can be transformed into a connected series of illustrations.
If the answer is yes, then the hard part is thinking of the right artist to make the pictures. Jane has a collection of children's picture books going back to the 1940s, the years of our childhood; these are arranged in groups according to illustrator. If she is trying to think of an artist for a particular project, she begins to leaf through the books. "How about Barbara Cooney?"
We were lucky. Barbara Cooney agreed to illustrate Spirit Child, and David Reuther, editor in chief of Morrow Junior Books, agreed to publish it.
For Doctor Coyote the choice was Wendy Watson. Again we were lucky. Wendy Watson said yes, and so did Judith Whipple, editor in chief of Macmillan Children's Books.
It was fun to work with these illustrators. Both Barbara Cooney and Wendy Watson are very serious artists. Barbara traveled to central Mexico to make color sketches—not far from Ixtacihuatl and Popocatepetl. And Wendy went to northern New Mexico, which was the locale we had chosen for Doctor Coyote. I have saved the letters and postcards we exchanged about such questions as what costumes the three kings should wear in Spirit Child and what sort of house Coyote ought to live in. I keep records like this in a large black file cabinet next to my desk.
It takes many people to create a book. The author (if I may call myself that), the illustrator, the designer, and the editor are only four of them. The copy editor, the production director, the paper supplier, the printer, and the binder are some of the others. When everything is finished, it sometimes feels strange to see my name on the cover.
Now that I think about it, I suppose Mrs. Ramsey—if she is reading over my shoulder—would rather I promised to send her a copy of Spirit Child or Doctor Coyote. Although I spent more hours working on the dictionary, these smaller books, with their brilliant illustrations, have much more to say.
My fourth-grade classroom was just across the hall from Mrs. Ramsey's room. But, like the transition from second grade to third grade, the move to fourth grade was a big step to take. That year a part of me decided I was no longer a child. I stopped reading "children's books" and read thick books with no pictures.
I don't know how long this went on. But several years later, when we were all in eighth grade, I remember being assigned The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pêne du Bois. This book had won the Newbery Medal the year before, and it was thought that eighth graders should read Newbery books. The truth is, it was a "children's book" with plenty of pictures, and we all knew it.
Since we liked the book, we were careful not to stigmatize it. I remember we said to each other, "Hey, that was a good book!" but with a little smile that meant we felt we were really too old for it.
Thinking back to those times, I am always careful not to put the words "children's book" or "for children" anywhere in my books or on the jacket flaps. It is up to every person to define himself or herself. You never know when a child will decide that it is time not to be a child anymore.
People sometimes ask me why I do what I do. "How did you get started in this?" they say. Or, less tactfully, "How did you ever get started in this?"
I try to have an answer ready, but it comes out differently each time. Sometimes I just say that Jane got me started in books. Which is true enough.
One time I gave an elaborate explanation about being in the mountains of Peru and hearing the quena (a kind of flute) played at twilight.
"By traveling in Latin America in the 1960s" is a more reserved version of that. And it's true, I did make several trips to Latin America in the 1960s. Not only to Peru but to Mexico and Puerto Rico. I've already mentioned that Jane went with me to Mexico. And in the 1970s, our daughter, Alice, went too. I have a picture of Alice climbing the ruins of a Maya temple at Uxmal.
Another explanation is that there were virtually no books of Indian stories or Indian poetry for young readers when I was a child, and I wanted to help change that.
One thing I can say for certain is that I did not prepare for my career. It just happened.
Well read and feeling older, I graduated from the fourth grade in 1946 and took a position in the last row next to the window in Miss Dorothy's fifth grade. One day that fall, when I was walking home from school with my next-door neighbor and classmate, RC, together with some other boys, the conversation turned to teachers, and we began to trade uncomplimentary observations. There was no personal animosity in it—in fact I liked Miss Dorothy. Rather, it was in the spirit of generational combat.
But RC was my enemy. The next morning he got to school early and told Miss Dorothy a tale so lurid it made her head swim for weeks. After the bell rang, and in front of everybody, she denounced me in a fiery speech that she repeated, with variations, day after day. The girls decided she must be right, and they scolded me privately during recess periods. The pressure did not ease until the end of winter.
Meanwhile I got back at RC. I threw him down and held his head against the ground until he cried "Help!"
My father used to say that the trouble with our village was that there were too many children. With a grim expression on his face he would drive through village streets at excruciatingly slow speeds so as not to run over any of them. But while there may have been more children than adults, the adults were the ones who knew the phone number that would bring the police. With people like RC taking the wrong side, any children's rebellion would have been put down immediately.
We did have disturbances, at least one or two every summer. But, sadly, in these outbreaks we always fought each other.
The arena was a wide place in the street where cars could turn around, directly in front of my house. In this space we would play a shouting game called movie star, or another game with long lines of children holding hands and running at each other, chanting, "Red Rover, Red Rover, I dare you come over." When violence erupted, somebody's mother would call Hap Otting.
Hap Otting was the police chief. My own mother, to her credit, never called him. Usually the informer was a red-haired woman who lived on the other side of the wide place and liked to boast of her special relationship with the authorities. "Hap knows me," she would say, and when the squad car came rolling down the street, we all ran for cover, including the future compiler of The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians.
One day when I was exasperated with my parents, I locked myself in my room and muttered under my breath that I would spite them by never growing up. It would have been a cruel punishment that would no doubt have driven them to their graves even earlier than nature had planned.
But nature, for better or for worse, takes its own course—as explained in the old Iroquois story about the boy called Rooted. This boy, it is said, lived in the woods with his uncle, Planter, who had a great elm tree in front of his lodge. Rooted, the nephew, lay at the foot of the tree, its roots growing over and around his body, holding him to the earth.
One spring morning, while the uncle was off in the field planting seeds, he heard the song, "I am rising, I am rising." Dropping his seeds, he ran to the elm tree and saw that his nephew was resting on one elbow and that the tree was beginning to lean.
"I am thirsty," said the boy.
The uncle gave him some water, then pushed the tree back to an upright position and returned to his planting. Again he heard the nephew's song, "I am rising, I am rising."
"Poor boy, I wonder what he wants now," said the uncle. When he was halfway home, there came a tremendous crash, which was heard over the whole country.
All the people said, "Rooted has come to manhood. He has stood up."
That night the young man and his uncle had a talk. "You are grown," said the old man. "You can go where you please."
I didn't know it at the time, but while I was vowing never to grow up, I had only seven more years to be at home. In 1954, finally, I was able to leave and begin a new life. By then nobody could accuse me of running away. I simply said I was "going" away and no one knew the difference.
My destination was three states to the east, four if you count the West Virginia panhandle. But it seemed farther, because in the 1950s few people traveled in airplanes.
On my first day in New York I walked in a woods of birch trees and hemlocks. There was water seeping through black soil at the edge of cliffs, and ferns were growing everywhere. I just kept walking until my feet were tired.
The reason I had come east was that I had known it would be cooler and damper and the vegetation would be more luxuriant. This was not a trivial reason, because in those days I was a student of plants. I was a winner of science prizes and a collector who brought home specimens and stored them between newspapers until they were stacked to the ceiling. A high school teacher had told me I would become a forest ranger.
But eventually I drifted to the strange city I had imagined at an earlier age. Someone gave me a job there, and I became an office worker. Someone else rented me a room.
If you are tall and talk fast, you can do these things.
While living in Manhattan I remembered the woods where my camps had been. In southwestern Ohio there are no birches or hemlocks, as there are in upstate New York, and the soil is drier. But nut-bearing trees, especially beeches, grow much larger, and there are pawpaws and sassafras. There are fewer ferns, but better blackberries. The creeks dry up in July, but the rock ledges are filled with fossils, in some places so many and so loose that you can scoop up handfuls.
Those woods, where the beeches and the fossils were, had been given to the people of our village by the government of the United States. At least that is what many of us believed. Not long after I had gone away, the question was brought to court, and I was asked to come testify.
At first I refused, because I thought a professional biologist should be the one to speak. But someone was needed who not only knew what was there but had lived with it and been a part of it.
The lawyer for the developers was one of the most powerful lawyers in Ohio. He was the brother of a senator. He acted friendly, but when I took the witness stand he tried to make me contradict myself.
"If people go into those woods to see the plants," he said, "then it must be for only a few months in the summer."
I said, "It begins in late January when Erigenia bulbosa comes up." All the while the court stenographer was tapping away at his keyboard, recording every word. I thought to myself, "How does he know how to spell Erigenia ?" I wanted to stop the proceedings to make sure he was getting it right.
In the end it didn't matter about Erigenia or the beeches or the fossils. I accidentally mentioned that the government had laid an asphalt path through one corner of the forest, and this demonstrated that the land had been intended for the people's use. On account of the path, the woods were saved, at least for a little while.
Iroquois people here in New York used to say that the first stories were told by a stone, deep in the woods. In southern Canada and in New England, Indian people used to speak of stories as though they were persons. A storyteller might begin by saying, "It is as if a man walked," or "Here lives my story," or "Here camps my story," or sometimes, "My story was walking along, a wilderness-house man, his clothing was made of sheets of moss and shreds of withes formed his belt."
Although it is true enough that Indian stories are made up at definite times by real people, the preferred idea is that the story has a life of its own, independent of the narrator. It is as though it belonged to the land or to certain spirits rather than to the human mind.
The same could be said of songs. Among the Diegueño Indians of southern California it was once believed that all songs were originally contained in the body of a snake; when the snake exploded, the songs were scattered over the countryside.
What this means, for one thing, is that Indian stories and Indian poetry can never be outdated or oldfashioned.
How many New Yorkers who wrote novels or poetry in English a hundred years ago are remembered today? How many will be remembered a hundred years from now? Perhaps none. No one can say for sure. But the myths and tales recorded by Iroquois storytellers a hundred years ago—if the libraries that contain them do not catch fire or sink beneath oceans—will still be valued ten thousand years from now, just like all things in nature.
Here in the Catskills we have many poets and novelists—some of them famous, at least for the time being—and in a large village twenty minutes from where I live, there is a writer-in-residence program. Every year a writer is asked to give a series of workshops for people who want to participate in discussions about writing or who want to improve their own writing skills.
In 1988 I was asked to conduct these workshops, not exactly as a writer but as a translator. There would be a poster advertising the sessions, and people would come who wanted to talk about the problems of writing, editing, and translating in the field of Native American literature. I was asked for a picture that could be used on the poster.
Since I have never been comfortable about pictures of myself in connection with Indian literature and have never had "author's" photographs on my book flaps, I decided to use a picture that conveys at least one idea of who the real writer might be. That picture is from a thousand-year-old Maya vase, and it shows a rabbit writing a hieroglyphic book. It is the picture you see in the text of this essay.
The vase has personal significance for me because I knew the people who once owned it. Their names were William and Mildred Kaplan, and they had a gallery and bookshop in Manhattan (Arte Primitivo, still operated by Mildred Kaplan). They were fortunate to have come into possession of what some people regard as the finest Maya vase ever discovered.
The Kaplans thought highly of the vase with the rabbit and believed it ought to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But this was before the Museum had built its "primitive" wing. As things turned out, the vase went to Princeton University, where it is kept safely for future generations, although not as many people can see it as would have, had it found its way to the Metropolitan.
At the time I went back to Ohio and testified in the trial about the woods, I was living in a five-story tenement in midtown Manhattan. It was in this building that I met Jane. I lived on the top floor in the front. Her apartment was directly across the hall, facing the back.
It was noisy in this place. Across the street in the front, the presses of the Daily Mirror rolled all night long. Across the alley in the back, parking attendants raced automobiles up and down the twisting ramps of a five-story garage. Memories of this building are one of the many things that Jane and I have in common.
After we were married and had lived at several different addresses, all in midtown Manhattan, we decided to stop being office workers and see if we could work and live by ourselves in the country. The house we found in the Catskills was an old, run-down boardinghouse in a valley between two mountain ridges covered mostly with birches, hemlocks, oaks, maples, and white pines.
That was twenty years ago, as I have said, and we are still living and working in the same old house. On the ground floor in the back, Jane has her studio, where she works as a free-lance designer; and I have my own studio, on the west side of the house, where I do my reading and studying and work on my translations.
There is an old Italian proverb that has the same form as the English expression "losers weepers." It goes traduttore traditore, which means "the translator is a traitor," or, literally, "translator, traitor."
In the same vein, the Hebrew poet Chaim Bialik has lamented, "Translation is like kissing through a handkerchief."
Recently an Iroquois teller of traditional stories said to me, "There's a problem here. The trouble is, they don't sound right in English. You have to use too many words."
Yet if we did not have translation, we would be isolated from the rest of the world's thoughts. We would not have the Bible, which was written in Hebrew and in Greek. We would not have the epics of Homer. And of course we would know nothing of American Indian lore.
Translation may be impossible, as many have said. But translators never stop trying, always hoping for a magical combination of words in English that will exactly convey the meaning of the original. Here, for example, is an Aztec poem that I have looked at many times:
Annochipa tlalticpac, zan achica ye nican. Tel ca chalchihuitl, no xamani. No teocuitlatl in tlapani. 0 o quetzalli poztequi. Annochipa tlalticpac, zan achica ye nican.
You can begin by recognizing that an means "not," nochipa means "forever," tlalticpac means "on earth," and so on, until you have a version that looks something like this:
Not-forever on-earth, only moment already here. Though indeed jade, also it-shatters. Also gold the it-breaks. Oh oh quetzalplumes they-splinter. Not-forever on-earth, only moment already here.
As Robert Frost would have said, the poetry has been lost. We can fix things a little by choosing different words and making the English read more smoothly. But there will still be a problem in meaning. It can be understood that jade shatters, and feathers splinter. But does gold break? If you drop a gold ring, it remains whole.
In fact the underlying idea, which would be understood by Aztec listeners, is that "jade," "gold," and "plume" are poetic images that stand for the warrior, whose body is broken on the field of battle. This is really a kind of war song.
If I were translating these lines today, I would work for a strict version, to be accompanied by a note explaining the imagery. Years ago, however, I published the poem in a rather free version that went like this:
Not forever on earth,
But briefly here!
Be it jade, it too will be broken;
Be it gold, it too will be melted,
And even the plume of the quetzal decays.
Not forever on earth,
But briefly here!
That is how the verse appeared in my book In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations. I wish now that I could redo it.
Writers of books sometimes talk about the letters they receive from young people, letters that bring tears to their eyes or that make their hearts leap for joy. My readers are more critical.
Not long ago I heard from a young man who lives on the other side of the Hudson River, about seventy-five miles from here. He wrote:
In the past few weeks my English class has been doing a project on the writers of our area. I picked your book In the Trail of the Wind: American Indian Poems and Ritual Orations.
I am interested in Indian rituals, and that's why I picked your book.
I read your book and I liked it, but there is one thing that I dislike. That is, in my opinion, I think you should have said more about the ritual orations. After a while I was starting to get bored reading all the poems.
I was wondering why you decided to include so many poems. Is there some reason why? If so, could you write back and explain.
I did write back, thanking him for his letter, and I explained that many of the "poems" are in fact the words used in rituals. I suggested some books to read on Indian religion and ended by saying, "I hope you will read more Indian poems. Many people feel, as I do, that the poetry of the Native Americans has great strength and power."
All true. But what I learned from my critic is that some of my translations were not good enough. If I had done a better job with the one about "jade" and "gold," if I had been able to explain that it was a song sung in a special kind of war ritual, it might have been more enthusiastically received. I could not have done so at the time, unfortunately, because I had not yet completed my research on Aztec poetry.
As I learn more, my books should improve.
Once when I was a child I read a mystery story in which there was a house with a "dead" room, a room in the middle of all the others, with no windows on the outside. Our house, too, has a dead room, which, I suppose, is the next best thing if you don't have a hidden staircase or a secret passage. The dead room stays dark and cool in the summer, but it is not very mysterious. Actually it is a cheerful room (if you switch on the lights) because it is where Jane keeps her collection of children's books.
Next to the dead room, on the west, is my studio, the only room that still has the flower-patterned linoleum from the days when the place was a boardinghouse. This is the room with the black file cabinet and the shelves of dictionaries and manuscripts. On one wall is a picture of a young Chippewa man, drawn by Alan Cober for my first book, The Fire Plume: Legends of the American Indians. There is also a small microfilm reader that I made myself out of plywood and a broom handle. And there are a few musical instruments, including a log drum for testing drum cadences in old Aztec manuscripts and a Bolivian flute that Alice sent me from Indiana, where she has now gone to start her own life.
South of the dead room and to the right is Jane's studio, which is a more artistic-looking space than my own workroom. Here there are drawing boards and a large white-topped counter for laying out books still in the planning stage, books that are still "dummies" or that have advanced to being "finished layouts" or even "proofsheets."
But there are also shelves along the wall. Jane's studio, like mine, is filling up with books. Some of them will have to be moved to a closet, and some in that closet will have to be transferred to an upstairs closet or to a new wall of shelves that I have built in the dead room. We have bookshelves over doorways and in the living room and in the upstairs hall. At regular intervals I check the beams in the cellar to make sure they are not sagging under the weight.
Out the back windows of the house, including the windows in Jane's studio, you can see a small meadow and a line of aspens and pines. In the morning and again in the evening, deer come to browse in the meadow. Sometimes I find bear droppings there. Bears and wildcats are native to this valley, although I have yet to see them in the yard.
On the front of the house is the old boardinghouse kitchen, with windows looking out on the road through a ragged hemlock hedge. Sometimes a child, or two children, will pass by, but seldom more than two or three.
In this mountain valley the houses are neither attached nor clustered, and in many of them there are old people. My father would have approved of a community balanced between young and old. But it is not a place where a child can run out the front door and find a four-leaf-clover hunt already in progress or a cappistol fight or a game of mothers-and-fathers, or perhaps a choice of two or three such events. Instead there is a quiet road and lanes that disappear into the woods.
This is a village that is reasonably safe for adults, safe at least from the ravages of earthly powers.
Death was unknown in my village in Ohio. There were no cemeteries, either in the village itself or for miles around.
But here in the Catskills there are funeral parlors, and in our small village there are two cemeteries within a few hundred yards of the house. One afternoon when Alice was four—my age when I ran away from home—I took her walking, and when we had trouble deciding which way to go, I said, "Would you like to go this way and see a cemetery?"
"Oh yes! I love cemeteries" was the answer, although she had never been to either of these places.
"Why do you like cemeteries so much?"
"Because they're about my two favorite subjects, death and murder." By the time Alice was ten, however, she had witnessed several neighborhood funerals and no longer looked upon graveyards as fictional locales. Her experience with death was something I missed entirely as a child. My father's and mother's funerals, when I was thirty-two and thirty-five, respectively, were the first I ever attended.
My village in Ohio had seemed like a place where no one would ever grow up, let alone die. But if we lacked an acquaintance with death and with the ceremonies that attend it, we made up for it by our intimate knowledge of other forms of ritual. Suddenly, in a front yard or at the curb, someone would appear with a rope and there would be cries of "no ender first" and "no ender second," and all who had said nothing would line up with their fists extended. Then no-ender-first would go down the line tapping each fist, chanting, "One potato two potato three potato four, five potato six potato seven potato more." And down would go one fist. When all but two fists had been eliminated, the rope would start to turn, and no-ender-first would jump in, chanting, "Straw berry short -cake, Huckl e-berry Finn, when I call your birth -day, please come in: Jan -uary,February, March, A -pril . . ." At the announcement of each month, more jumpers would answer the call, as the two enders turned wider and wider circles to contain the bouncing humanity within.
To keep myself young I walk to the store every morning to pick up the newspaper. Jane, who doesn't like to walk that far, starts out later and meets me when I am halfway back home, and we walk the rest of the way together. Sometimes it is quite early, and if it happens to be a weekend, there may be people still asleep.
A few days ago, on the way to the store, I heard a little girl's voice calling out to me from inside a house: "You write very nice stories. We have one of your books." The book she meant was The Naked Bear: Folktales of the Iroquois. Her parents had already told me about finding a copy of this at the nearest bookstore, which is sixteen miles away.
In a whisper I hoped would be loud enough for her to hear but not so loud that it would wake the neighborhood, I said, "Thanks."
But I really wanted to tell her that I hoped she would read more Iroquois stories, that I hoped she would remember them for a long time, that she should ask her parents to take her to the Iroquois Festival at Cobleskill on September third, that she ought to know I am not really a writer but a collector and a translator, and that the stories she liked, far from having been written by me, were told by a stone somewhere deep in the woods of upstate New York.
POSTSCRIPT: Bierhorst contributed the following update to CA in 2004.
One evening in 1990, not long after writing the above essay, I received a phone call from our neighbor, a young man who lived with his wife in a small yellow house barely visible through the trees.
"My wife and I have given up trying to have a child," he began, unexpectedly, "and we've decided to adopt." Then he paused. "But we'd have to have $15,000. That's how much it costs now to adopt a child." And then: "Would you be interested in buying the woods behind your house?"
Interested? Our neighbor owned these woods, and for years we had been hoping to buy them. Now, however, we were putting our daughter, Alice, through college. She had become a painting major at the Rhode Island School of Design and had at least another year to go. Would buying the woods be a responsible thing to do?
These woods are a tiny fragment of the Catskill forest, separating our backyard from the Bushkill, the trout stream that used to attract fishermen as overnight guests when our place was run as a boardinghouse half a century ago. Pileated woodpeckers can be seen there, and great blue herons. Among the different kinds of trees are sycamores, hemlocks, and white pines. This modest one-acre tract, with its red trilliums, jack-in-thepulpits, Carolina spring beauty, and fragile-fern, was to bring a change in my neighbors' life—they adopted a baby boy and in the glow of family happiness were suddenly able to have a second child on their own, a girl—and in addition a change came in my life.
Unbelievably, as it now seems, I was unsure. I even tried to convince myself that I wasn't really interested anymore. But my wife, Jane, insisted: "We have to do it."
We did do it. And after we had bought our piece of the Bushkill woods, the next step was to preserve it. People like to say they love woods, but unless you do something about it the woods have a way of disappearing. A private land conservancy had just started up in our part of the county, and we got in touch with them to see if our one-acre tract might qualify for a conservation easement. An easement would mean that we could continue to own the property and could sell it or pass it along to our daughter, but the conservancy would own the "development" rights, guaranteeing that the woods would never be changed.
This was not an easy step to take. The conservancy's contract was a stiff one. It held us legally responsible for any vandalism or timber poaching that might occur, even if caused by an outsider without our knowledge. A lawyer friend found this part of the contract outrageous and advised us not to sign. One day, in a flash, I realized that I would sign, and I called up the director of the conservancy and said, more dramatically than the moment deserved (after all, it was only an acre), "I'm asking you to take care of my land—forever."
Not long after that my new friends at the conservancy asked me if I would organize a search for all the rare plants and animals in our part of the Catskill Mountains. An enormous undertaking that at first I rejected. But then, again, I had a flash. And so began a three-year project, eventually involving hundreds of people in our community, including many landowners who gave permission to have their properties searched. Experts were brought in, mostly botanists and zoologists, who looked for plants and animals, but also archaeologists, who identified Native American sites and catalogued the arrowheads, stone knives, pottery fragments, and bone needles that were found there.
The end result was a book that I was able to write, drawing upon the knowledge of a great many people, entitled The Ashokan Catskills: A Natural History. My name is on the title page, but the book's real inspiration came from Elinor Boice, president of the Rondout-Esopus Land Conservancy, who supplied the idea. Within three months the book had sold out and had to be reprinted. More importantly, the project established a base for preserving the natural heritage of the Ashokan region.
One of the first results was a conservation easement that now protects a deep ravine known as Cathedral Gorge, locally famous for its waterfall, less known for its rare plants and animals, including a kind of moss found nowhere else in New York State. This, too, will be taken care of—forever.
While investigating American Indian sites for the Ashokan project, I began to wonder what stories might have been told in these woods and along these streams before the arrival of the first Dutch settlers. I wanted not only to see, with heightened awareness, what Native people had seen in this part of the world but to hear, or at least read, the words they might have spoken. This was not an easy thing to research. The Delaware, or Lenape, who had originally lived in southeastern New York and New Jersey and had used the rockshelters of the Ashokan region as hunting camps, had long since been pushed westward, ending up mostly in Oklahoma and Ontario.
The search led me to manuscripts stored at the Museum of the American Indian in New York, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and in tribal archives in Oklahoma. The outcome was not one but two books, Mythology of the Lenape: Guide and Texts and The White Deer, both published in 1995, the same year as The Ashokan Catskills.
The White Deer is a collection of unretouched Delaware stories, not rewritten, not retold, with photographs of the storytellers who had heard traditional lore from their parents and grandparents. It is the first publication of these stories. Yet it is a book for children—designed by Jane, as are nearly all my books—calculated to give young readers a taste of authenticity. Barbara Bader, the children's literature critic and historian, calls it a book of "real stories told by real people."
Like the Iroquois, who say stories were originally told by a stone, Delaware people, too, think of stories as coming directly from nature. In fact The White Deer begins with a little tale called "How the First Stories Came Out of the Earth." A man, it seems, was once returning from a hunting trip and found a strange hole in the ground. He looked into it and somebody spoke to him. The hunter asked who it was. "But the thing did not tell him, only said it was a grandfather: 'If anyone wishes to hear stories, let them come here and roll in a little tobacco or a bead, and I will tell them a story.' So the people came. And that is the beginning of the stories which we do not know are true or not."
Listening to nature, then. It's a charming idea, no doubt, and seemingly quite simple. What does it really mean?
I'm reminded of a conference on children's literature, years ago, in which I participated along with Augusta Baker, surely the doyenne of children's librarians and one of the finest storytellers I have ever known. When the conversation turned to American Indian literature, and after several of us had attempted to say something intelligent about the essence of Indian stories, Augusta said quietly, but as always with a voice that could be heard all over the room, "Love of nature." Just three words.
Again a deceptively simple idea. But those who knew Augusta Baker will remember that her words were weighted with extra meanings. She did not shrink from the darker regions of children's literature and, in a field well guarded by adults determined to shield children from the truth, she was not afraid of controversy. That simple phrase, "love of nature," heard in my memory with Augusta's particular intonation, was to become a watchword for me.
One of Augusta Baker's characteristic recollections was of a day she had spent with a class of young pupils as their substitute teacher. "When it came time to read a story," she recalled, "I asked them what they wanted to hear. They all said, 'millionsofcats millionsofcats. ' Well . . . I like Millions of Cats. So I took the book off the shelf and started to read."
"When I got to the part where they're all tearing each other up, the children stopped me: 'No! No! That's not how it goes!' I said, 'But that's the story.' 'Oh no! That's not how Miss So-and-so reads it!'—their regular teacher. I said, 'I don't know what version Miss Soand-so reads, but this it what it says right here in the book.' And I read it to them. And they loved it."
Why was Miss So-and-so afraid not to clean up Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats, and what dangerous meaning can we find in it?
I'm reminded at this point of a small detail in the editing of a special children's book on the environment that was published in 1993 as The Big Book for Our Planet. The editor was Ann Durell, for many years the editor-in-chief of Dutton Children's Books and, before that, Children's Books at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. After I had sent Ann my contribution, she told me she had almost failed to convince a prominent figure in the children's book world to join the project, which, as we all imagined, would have been a lamentable omission. He had complained to her that he was not going to waste his time on one of those feel-good books about the joys of recycling and "caring about" national parks. What about population control? Wasn't that the real issue? Ann persuaded him to contribute, she told me, by telling him she already had in hand a contribution—an American Indian story—entitled "Why There Is Death."
Jane became the designer of The Big Book for Our Planet, and Wendy Watson agreed to illustrate "Why There Is Death." It had been several years since Wendy and I had collaborated, on Doctor Coyote, and it was rewarding to work with her again.
By now I was feeling that some of these larger questions that kept coming up needed to be dealt with in an organized way, and I began to work on still another project, which ended up as a book entitled The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment. I'm afraid I chose an unfortunate moment to write on this topic. The 1990s were a decade when people had grown tired of reading about environmental problems and were prepared to hear such things as, for example, that the forests of eastern North America had increased (temporarily) or that Native Americans had never had an interest in wilderness (not true) and had actually burned the forests to make prairies where big game could thrive (partly true).
I set to work nevertheless, examining thousands of myths, prayers, rituals, and first-person testimony for Native ideas about the kinship between humans and other parts of nature and about the possibility of striking a bargain with the powers that rule nature. It is a subject filled with contradictions—just as, in my own life, the Bushkill woods had been saved in a bargain that resulted in adding not one but two new human beings to the neighborhood. Native American prayers, as they should, weigh in on the second half of this bargain; Native American myths, on the first half.
My recollection, until a moment ago, was that The Way of the Earth got very few reviews and some rather negative comments. I checked my file. I thought I'd pull out one of these reviews and quote a particularly critical remark, just to prove my point. Surprisingly, I found not a few but many reviews in the file, ranging from School Library Journal to the New York Times, and all were positive or at least respectful. Not a single harsh comment. Yet the impression remains that this was a book with a deeper meaning for me than for anyone else. I wonder if it is too dark. For some reason it is the only book I have ever written that has been recorded for the blind.
After The Way of the Earth was published I began to do more volunteer work for the land conservancy. I joined its Board of Advisors and helped with what we call "monitoring," to make sure that land protected by easements is not abused. No vandalism, no timber poaching. As part of this effort I also search the easement lands for rare plants and animals, so that the conservancy can identify habitats that need special protection.
The work can be dangerous. Although most landowners are cooperative, there are people in the community who do not like conservation easements and who become suspicious, even enraged, when they see somebody prowling around in their neighbor's woods. Sometimes they call the police. I have even been threatened with physical violence.
Yet the work continues. By the end of 2003 the conservancy had acquired easements on 3000 acres in the eastern Catskill region—in the watersheds of the Esopus and Rondout creeks. The little piece of Bushkill woods owned by Jane and me, at merely an acre, is still the smallest of these easements and probably always will be.
In the 1990s environmentalism, not only in the Catskills but in the world at large, was becoming increasingly confrontational. And Native American tribes, now calling themselves "nations," were much involved. These reverberations had to be taken into account when I was given the opportunity to revise my three books The Mythology of North America, The Mythology of South America, and The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. More than before, Native Americans were bringing environmental issues into courtrooms and international forums in order to gain better control over their homelands and to protect sacred sites from commercial development—not only in North America but in Central and South America. Along the way, mythology had become one of the legal tools, as courts increasingly listened to tribal stories that supported land claims. All this made the subject of Indian mythology more interesting than it had been before.
Suddenly, in keeping with these changes, after years of wanting to work with Native illustrators and being told no by publishers, I was able to do book projects with two unusually gifted artists whose work I continue to admire very much. One was Ron Hilbert Coy, a member of the Tulalip tribe of Western Washington, who illustrated The Deetkatoo: Native American Stories about Little People. The other was Mary Ohkeena, an Inuit artist who lives on Holman Island, three hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle. Mary Okheena became the illustrator of The Dancing Fox: Arctic Folktales.
I had retained a vivid memory of Diamond Jenness's classic People of the Twilight, a 1928 account of tribal life on Holman Island, which at that time was one of the most remote outposts on the planet. What would Jenness have thought, I wondered, if he could have known that in the late 1990s the "people of the twilight," now equipped with satellite TV and fax machines, were having no trouble keeping in touch with the world of the "southerners" far below, including me—and Jane, who worked directly with Mary to design our book.
And now, from the other end of the hemisphere, came a rare chance to work with Mapuche poets whose homeland is in the region deep within Chile known as el sur, "the south." Really the south. This project, directed by the Chilean artist-scholar Cecilia Vicuna, resulted in the book called Ul: Four Mapuche Poets. I served as the translator.
Meanwhile Jane and Alice were pursuing their separate careers. Jane, as always, was designing books by many authors other than me, and in 1998 she traveled to Italy to serve as the American judge for the annual awards given at the international children's book fair in Bologna. Alice, after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, returned to her first love, music, and became a vocalist and composer, now living in New York with her husband, Rob Price, who is also a musician. Nevertheless, Jane's encyclopedic collection of birds' nests and Alice's fifth CD album, called "Earth-bound," reveal that our interests continue to intersect.
In my own work I find again and again that The Way of the Earth —a title I don't much like anymore, it's too pat—casts a shadow that touches my other projects. This is true of my scholarly edition of a sixteenth-century Aztec manuscript, the Codex Chimalpopoca, with its disturbing information on human sacrifice, as well as a recent picture book for young children, The People with Five Fingers: A Native Californian Creation Tale, hinting at a deep connection between the human and natural worlds.
In 1992 I had been asked to give the annual Augusta Baker lecture in Columbia, South Carolina. Six years later my old friend died, and when The People with Five Fingers came out I sent a copy to the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, with the inscription, "In memory of Augusta Baker."
Through these years I have not given up on the possibility of sharing some of the ideas I had tried to develop in The Way of the Earth. So when I made a school visit not long ago, I brought with me an Iroquois story I thought would be helpful. It's a tale about bear hunting, a version of the widespread bear-boy myth of eastern North America: a young boy abandoned in the woods by his cruel stepfather is adopted by a bear, who begins to raise him with her two cubs. Months later the stepfather enters the woods as a hunter and recklessly kills the mother and both the cubs. Terrified when he realizes his own stepson has become the bears' relative, he begs the boy to return and live with him once again, to protect him from the bear ghosts. The boy, who now has bear power, grows up to be a successful hunter, but the stepfather doesn't dare hunt for the rest of his life.
When I had finished reading this story to a roomful of fourth graders, I asked if anybody had ever seen a bear, imagining that at least one or two might have had an encounter in this not quite suburban town on the edge of a large metropolitan area. Surprisingly every hand in the room shot up, and immediately I was hearing stories about garbage cans turned over and bears caught in somebody's headlights.
Finally a boy with a fresh haircut and a grown-up white dress shirt said, "I went bear hunting with my Dad."
I paused, wondering whether a nine-year-old would be out in the woods with a rifle. But I'm afraid I knew the answer.
"Did you kill a bear?"
"Yes." I didn't ask who had shot it. We were getting perilously close to the bear-boy myth.
No one was saying a word. I asked, "Is it all right to take a bear?" Silence. Something told me my nine-year-old bear hunter's family did not need bear meat to get through the winter. But remembering Augusta Baker's lesson in tact, I didn't ask whether the bear was in the freezer. You never know. Perhaps it was.
I simply said, "Yes. If you need the meat."
Dead silence throughout the room.
Then I reached into my canvas bag and pulled out the books I had brought to give them. I'm not completely comfortable with these school visits where students are supposed to bring money to buy an author's book. Instead, I had decided to give my fourth graders some extra copies of books I had at home, promising to do this in a kind of raffle. They had all written their names on slips of paper, which I now started to draw from a box the teacher was handing me. At that moment, in a gesture of anticipation I don't think I had ever seen before, two or three began slapping their knees, and within a few seconds every knee in the room was being rhythmically slapped in a sort of drumroll, swelling to a hailstorm as I handed out the books.
Sometime afterward Barbara Bader came to our house for a visit. Actually it was an interview. She was planning to write an article about my work and wanted to talk to me and meet Jane. We sat down with my books surrounding us, books that Barbara referred to, succinctly, as "all of this."
I must have laid my hand on The Way of the Earth. "Oh yes," she said—as the afternoon sun came through the window overlooking the line of pines and aspens that mark the beginning of the Bushkill woods—"Oh yes, that's the book where you tell what 'all of this' means."