Recalling the Soul of the United States of America
Once upon a time people around the world used fables, folktales, fairytales, and myths to imagine new possibilities, see into blind spots, tell hard truths, and learn more about how to relate to each other and the world around and within them. Then a cleanup crew of cynics wandered in and pretended these stories were just for children.
They aren’t. Folktales come from the folk, who yarn about how the small and clever can outwit the gigantic and oppressive. Far from always being “happily ever after,” fairytales show the risks and struggles of living with unexpected magic and event. Traditional sacred stories, called “myths” in the West, symbolize what we tend to ignore about our relations with the more-than-human. Fables and parables convey neglected morals.
They also reconnect us with the places of their origin. As N. Scott Momaday so beautifully relates, while listening to his grandmother tell the stories of his people, it was as though he heard the speaking of the land itself.
Unfortunately, we have no current term in English for a story that acts like a myth or extended fable but isn’t one. Perhaps we could call the story below an archetale: a myth-like telling longer than a fable or parable, not necessarily magical, that aspires to awaken us to the relationship nexus linking ourselves, each other, and the world.
The tale below began with a question I asked myself in a spirit of earnest play: If USA were an entity able to speak, what would she have to say at this time to we who inhabit her?
While letting this question percolate in my imagination, I considered a premise I use in my classes: that what we are named is neither random nor meaningless. Some deeper wisdom is often at work: from the back of the mind (personal or collective), from the setting, from the milieu… Very often, an analysis of a person’s names offers clues about their deeper story, the biography behind their biography.
Just as unconscious life can at times be wiser than conscious intent, names are often wiser at root than their grandiose bestowers. The name “America” is feminine, said to derive from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian merchant, explorer, and refurbisher of the racist term “New World.” For bumping into what he thought was Asia, his name was placed on maps. But what about “Amerigo”?
The name is Latinized from Emmerich, a composite made of words meaning “whole, universal,” “labor,” or “home,” added to the Anglo-Saxon ric: “ruler, mighty, rich.” America: laboring mightily at home to become whole. That perhaps is who we really are, or at least who we were meant to be. Who we approach being when the long-silenced speak and are heard.
One of the indigenous names of the USA is Turtle Island. The turtle can be wise, armored, strong, persistent, adaptive, methodical, and a mobile home unto itself. It can move from land to water and back. In ancient China, the cracks in its shell were read for omens.
“America,” of course, is more than the USA. Could all the Americas share a common soul, essence, or purpose?
Be that as it may, what might the USA have to say to us about its soul? About ours?
Once upon a time…
Strong sisters lived close to one another, in charge of adjacent lands. The northern sister was rather cool, and the southern sisters warm. Usa could be either, and sometimes both.
All were richly gifted and adorned and holders of many powers. This tale focuses on Usa, whose land reached broadly between oceans. She oversaw the land. One might even say she was the land.
Usa’s essential temperament was generosity. She loved to share. Most of the creatures who lived with her, including those going about on two legs, understood this about her and were grateful.
She also loved to hear lore and see ideas and skills from other lands. What might visitors bring to the mix? What new things might arise when people rooted in place and tradition collaborated with people of no fixed identity?
So when the first wave of pale people arrived on big boats, she welcomed them.
Some of these newcomers appreciated her beauty and generosity. They entered into peaceful pacts with her first people and were grateful to be able to stay. They acted respectfully and showed themselves willing to learn about the land, its people, and their customs.
But others arrived wanting only to exploit the land, getting rich at its expense. Without even asking permission to stay, let alone visit, they unloaded invasive plants and animals from other lands they had stripped down. As they did this they attacked her two-legged peoples, many of whom died of strange new diseases. The strangers also enslaved other two-leggeds and set them to cruel hard work.
What a restless lot these hard-hearted newcomers were. Because they did not feel truly at home anywhere, they wanted to transform everything. As they burned and logged and enslaved and built, they forgot about the presence of Usa, if indeed they had ever known of it. So unsettled were they that many even persecuted other newcomers.
Usa loved variety and would have been delighted to host happy and grateful two-leggeds of every kind and color: pale, red, brown, black, yellow… But a particular group of the most immature and fearful pale people insisted on dominating her and all her other creatures. As far as she could tell, they suffered from a kind of disease with two deadly symptoms: a terror of depending on anyone or anything but themselves, and the desire to control what others needed to live.
The name of their disease was Fear. Fear of self, one another, and even the world. Fear of life. Rather than find healing for it, the Fearful went around armed.
The fellow humans they tried to bully fought back. Over time, they made their voices heard. They supported one another, told wisdom stories, worked with the land, sung spirited songs, made poems, conducted rituals, prayed hard and long, built strong alliances, and insisted on fair laws and fair shares of Usa’s gifts. Their brave sacrifices convinced the full-hearted among the pale people to support their struggle, however imperfectly.
As the struggle went on, however, Usa’s once-verdant land deteriorated. Rivers once full of the finned ones slowed and even stopped, poisoned and exhausted. The winged were shot from the air in droves; four-leggeds died by the millions in bloody factories; clouds of furry yellow laborers left their nests and vanished. The skies darkened with toxins and rained acid down onto melting monuments. In the oceans on either side of Usa, large fins were no longer even seen. Usa’s earthly body trembled as superheated water, buzzing drills, and gigantic metal hammers tore into it and left it barren and trembling.
Among the two-leggeds, some fought to protect the land and its creatures as well as each other; for the same mighty forces that obliterated one kind of life attacked all life.
These two-leggeds, reflected Usa, represented such a spectrum of prospects. They built homes, towns, schools, vast libraries, tall cities; traveled over the land, through the air, and underwater; lit the night with electric fire; fed and clothed hordes of each other. Their wisest offered wisdoms even she had not thought of. At their worst, they were like demonic elementals spewing from the magma from which they had arisen. At their best, they cared for each other, their fellow creatures, the land, sea, and sky. They painted and programmed and sang and danced and rejoiced.
Should she remain quiet and leave them to themselves? No good mother tells her adult children, whether born to her or adopted from elsewhere, what to do.
She felt partly responsible for the divisions that set them against each other. She was herself divided: ancient eastern granite under one shore, scooped-up island arcs forming the western rock of the other. Her northern reaches knew coolness, her southern waves of warmth. She towered in some places and sank low in others. Huge territory-splitting rivers ran down her expanse, framing a belly swept by immense tornados linking ground and sky. Humans called her backbone the Great Divide.
Usa had grown tired of being an exploited mother. She decided to remind her people of who she was, who they were, and why they were here. If her mother could do that all over the world, why not her?
Because her inhabitants were many, she spoke in many voices. She always had, if in a steady murmur stretching across millennia, but this time she spoke louder. Two-leggeds sensitive to her presence heard her in dreams and visions. The ricocheting force of her call started fires and quakes, drew down streaks of lightning, sent four-leggeds scurrying, brought unseasonable droughts and rains.
Translated into human speech, this is what she said:
“Dear people who live in my lands,
“I am Usa, overseer of all that occurs from sea to pulsing sea. I am on watch from northern lakes and snowy forests to where the mountain-born river washes into the southern gulf.
“I am the source of your bounty and wealth, your soils and salts, your grains and your gold, for I was here long before any of you were. My generosity has given you a home, a sanctuary, and, for some of you more recently arrived, a haven from unjust law and petrified custom. I have welcomed you with clean water, ripe fruit, sparkling air, and rich loam. I have offered you pleasant rivers, far-seeing peaks, fresh lakes, and the shade of colossal trees.
“Many of you have appreciated these gifts. However, enough of you took them, and me, for granted that I have lost entire forests, rivers, lakes, mountaintops, and once-fertile fields to ceaseless attempts to convert them into your own self-importance. Those responsible have also harmed large numbers of each other.
“You were intended to show the world the bounty of a diversity of culture and calling as rich, deep, and varied as the diversity of my valleys, mountains, airs, waters, and other lifeforms, all supporting each other in a circle of continuing life. Here was where many voices could sing together and still retain their unique timbre. Here was where everyone had value. Nobody was better than anybody else.
“Here I have given you abundant varieties of goodness stored up over many millennia. How have you responded to this goodness? How have you multiplied it?
“In all your uproar about ‘USA, USA,’ do you even know I exist? Do you know my other names, some far older than any living human?
“Look around you at what you are doing to me. Look around you at what you are doing to each other.”
For a moment stretching all across Usa’s lands, winds died down, rains fell more lightly, lightning ceased to fall from the sky, and geysers halted. Even the insects and animals seemed to pause.
Some of the humans heard her, whether in vivid dreams, shifting moods, or other subtle means. Some of her people still understood the language of winds and crickets and heard her that way.
Usa sighed, which is to say that leaf-trembling breezes sprang up, dozens of streams slowed, and dank fields exhaled fogs.
“Let me tell you a story. It’s called ‘Mending the Hoop: The Great Experiment.’
“In the beginning here, after previous lands had been destroyed in sundry ways, Sky Woman, mother of Sapling and Flint, sang the present land into being while standing on the back of a giant tortoise. As she did this, One Who Lives Above rubbed his hands together and stars sprang alight. The Creator breathed, and Tawa’s sunlight shimmered upon the waters.
“Water Beetle, Muskrat, Coot, and Toad scooped up mud from the sea floor and made dark soil with it. Having cast a sky oracle with sixteen palm kernels, Obatala climbed down a mighty chain and poured out more land below. Hummingbird indicated the cardinal points. Raven cleansed the land with floods. All was very good.
“With the land prepared, a band of two-legged people emerged from a prior world into this one. Another band walked out of a hollow log. Another, guided by Inktomi the spider, came forth from a cave. Bald Eagle made some people, and Coyote others. Ant People, White Buffalo Woman, First Woman, and other wise guides taught the two-leggeds, called humans, how to live, pray, and make things.
“Grandmother Spider gave the people souls so they could lead righteous lives. The Hero Twins, born of heaven and earth, cleared the land of dangerous monsters.
“The people built. Mounds, houses, temples, tipis, hogans, boats, and a multitude of other useful items, simple and complex, for living together. Not always together in peace, of course, but in basic accord. The hoop of the nations curved large enough to include everybody, humans and non-humans alike. It was an ideal not always lived but aspired to for guidance.
“Over the centuries, many visitors arrived in the land, some as guests and some to stay. They brought their own customs, languages, songs, and even gods. Some arrived in a spirit of humility and were welcomed as friends of the land. They did not blend together so much as join the circle of community. They led lives of fairness and generosity.
“With them, however, came others who acted like the anaye banished by the Hero Twins. It was as though the Skeleton House had opened wide, and from it and over the ch’eleli bridge passed ghostly beings resembling men: giants and tchebi, skin walkers and chindi, shilombish shadow stalkers, Natsilane’s four jealous brothers, bodiless flying heads, hairless bears, water demons, gaunt and greedy wendigo, nocturnal cipelahq, hungry teihiihan, and of course Two Face with the sharpened elbows.
“Something had blighted their hearts with cold and fear. Because of the carnage these invaders inflicted, La Llorona wailed under a full moon for her lost children, just as Cihuacoatl had done in the land overseen by my southern sister. My invaded land wailed too.
“Those assaulted by the cold-hearts showed great courage and wit in their efforts to survive. Star Boy, though banished, continued to shine. Hungry Wihio found food and tricked the tricky. The Orisha Ayan gave his people musical instruments for finding solace when they could. Aunt Nancy outsmarted her unwelcome boyish visitors. Again and again, Br’er Rabbit escaped capture by diving through the briar patch he had grown up in. Molly Pitcher fought for justice, and the Lone Ranger went in search of it. John Henry drove steel, and Railroad Bill rode it.
“From around the world walked, sailed, and flew in many others: Oonagh and Finn, Jupiter and Hera, Thor and Freya, Nuwa and Fu Xi, Izanami and Izanagi, Vishnu and Shiva and all the rest… All of them looking for a new kind of home, a haven where many different presences would be welcome. Where everyone has value.
“From all the confusion and pain and violence, heroism and songs and love, rose a society distinctly Usan. It was never a melting pot here. It was a crucible. Behind all struggles and attempts at good government stood the ideal of the sacred circle, the grand hoop of belonging, however breached. Behind that was my presence, informing what magic you made here.
“The ideal remained a fragile one. One day, for example, ever-boastful Coyote wanted attention, so he put on a wig and, with accomplices like Porcupine and Stinkbug, went forth and stole fire from the people of the north. Some say he ran away so rapidly with the fire that he eventually burned himself up. Coyote liked to put on a spectacle.
“Then a plague originating among overcrowded four-leggeds broke out and swept across the overpopulated land. It killed many people, even entire families. The hunter Nekumonta went in search of the healing waters, but he fell asleep in the snow.”
Most of the land was now dark. The sun sank in the west and took its light down with it. High above, the stars began to glimmer.
“What happens next?” asked the humans who could hear Usa.
“You must write the rest of the story. You who are new here, you who have always been here, and everyone else now living here: each of you possesses a missing piece in the tale, and it cannot be complete until you make your own contribution to it.
“As you continue the story, ask yourselves:
“How will you awaken the sleeping healer in yourselves?
“How will you gather medicine, dance together, and recall that you are one large family in partnership with the land?
“How will the legacy of death and destruction be recognized, talked about, and healed?
“How will those of you with cold and fearful hearts retrieve your souls and find maturity? How will the elders among you help them?
“How will you create new medicine together and mend the hoop of the nation?
“You all live here and cannot avoid one another. In the end, you will either die together or live together. You are undergoing initiation into full humanness. True initiation is painful and dangerous. I wonder if you will survive.
“You cannot get initiated by killing the ghosts and monsters, a prerogative of the gods. You must live with what is monstrous outside you and inside you. How will you do that? How will you find the wisdom, strength, and compassion to help the monsters turn back into human beings? To help what is monstrous in you become humane?
“Even I do not know how the story will end. But I know this:
“If you who are stuck in fear and hatred go on acting like devils instead of like true adults, the Powers of the world will turn on you. Gaia will reject your crops, Hel will disease you, Saturn will depress you, and Hermes will short you out. Ogun will stop your machines, Oshun will halt your creeks, Yamaya will raise your oceans, Shango will burn your cities, and Oya will make you fatally ill and take you to the underworld.
“And you will have done all this to yourselves. How will you stop destroying and killing, consider what you do, and make amends?
“YOU, THE PEOPLE who live between these shores were to be a shining example for people everywhere: This is how different voices come together in one chorus. This is how you labor mightily at home to become whole. Whether you arrived recently, long ago, or grew up here, whether your forbears were forced here, came freely, or were always here, we need you! You need each other in this dreaming and doing together, the great work of your time.
“Understand that, and you may find the cure for your ailment, belong to each other, feel truly at home in this land, and mend and honor the sacred circle of your nation.”
Those who heard Usa began talking over what they had heard. One thing was clear: They would have to write the rest of the story together.
- “Thoughts on the Soul of the United States.”
- “What’s In a Name: Pre-Columbian America.”
- The Assembling Terrania Cycle.