Honoring the old ways
“I make a prayer for words. Let me say my heart.” — M. Scott Momaday
As the winner of almost all of the major awards given to American authors, N. Scott Momaday has topped off a long and celebrated career this year with another landmark book, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land (Harper Collins, 2020, 68 pgs), that to me seems like something of an epitaph with which to conclude his list of publications. It’s a small book you can hold in your hands and contains only 68 pages. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality.
As the title indicates, this is an insightful man looking back on his life and reflecting on the country and the landscape he has called home. Known to most as a novelist and poet, Momaday is a Kiowa elder and a literary wisdom-keeper consolidating, here, those places and things that have affected and effected him the most over the course of his life — in single page prose pieces collected much as one would write a memorial poem honoring a great love in the process of passing. And in a sense, this is exactly what the book Earth Keeper is — a love song, yet also a mourning song, by a Native American writer to perhaps his greatest love: the earth.
Earth Keeper is the kind of book that you can’t really talk about, but one that you have to let speak for itself. It is so full of precious parts of the author himself as well as places that reach deep into his heart and are reflected upon with grace and with loving wisdom. That being the case, I am going to share with you some of the thoughts, observations and musings included in this book and let the earth speak, through Momaday, as it channels its message to us human beings during a time of great strife and considerable contemplation. A time when such a book as Earth Keeper is more than useful, but perhaps integral to our survival and our need for a greater communion with the ground upon which we stand.
To begin at the beginning (which is always a good place to start), in his Author’s Note, Momaday says: “I was born and grew up in the American West. It is a part of the earth that I have come to know well and love deeply. Here I have written about what I know best, my native ground. This book is a very personal account, a kind of spiritual autobiography. This is a declaration of belonging. And it is an offering to the earth.”
He then, some pages later, goes on to say: “We humans must revere the earth, for it is our well-being. Always the earth grants us what we need. If we treat the earth with kindness, it will treat us kindly. We must dance in time with the rhythms of the earth. We must keep the earth.”
Talking poetically about the physicality of water, he says: “The waters tell of time. Always rivers run upon the earth and quench its thirst. We measure time by the flow of water as it passes us by. If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder. Your mind, your spirit will be nourished and grow. You will become one with what you see.”
And for Momaday, life is not all peaches and cream. He also speaks of loss. “There is no love without loss. Those who came before me did not take for granted the world in which they lived. They blessed the air ... they touched the ground, the trees, the stones with respect and reverence. Will I give my children an inheritance of the earth? Or will I give them less than I was given?”
After pondering and considering the idea of “loss,” Momaday writes more specifically about the times in which we are living. “We humans have inflicted terrible wounds upon the earth. The scars are everywhere visible. Will I tell my grandchildren, I wonder, of animals they will never see,” he says. And on this theme he continues: “How are we to ward off the immorality of ignorance and greed, the disease of indifference to the earth? We humans have done the damage, and we must be held to account. We have suffered a poverty of the imagination, a loss of innocence. Perhaps the answer lies in the expression of the spirit, in words of a sacred nature. Our songs were informed by our respective oral traditions and a reverence for nature.”
In the end, he writes about recovery and healing in the form of prayer. “O Great Mystery, let us see your likeness in the stars, and let us hear your voice in rolling thunder and in the wind and rain. Be with us forever in the sacred smoke of your being. These are my words, my offering to you, Great Mystery.”
And finally he ends the book with a personal pledge and writes: “May my heart hold the earth all the days of my life. May I chant the praises of the wild land, and may my spirit range on the wind forever. I will keep to the trees and waters, and I will be the singing of the soil. In my truest being I am a keeper of the earth. I will tell the ancient stories and I will sing the old songs. I belong to the land.”