Who belongs here?
A group of men were sitting with their lunch buckets at a building site near here, shooting the breeze as men will do when they are thrown together on the job and barely know one another. One of them lifted his eyes up to Sonoma Mountain and, with a deep, satisfied sigh, said he was really glad to be in such a good place, and that he had finally been able to buy a piece of land where he could someday build his own home.
An older man asked how long he had been in the valley, and he said “long enough – it’s taken me 10 years to put my roots down here.” “Shoot,” the other man said, “I’ve been here longer than that, and my roots are deep. I belong here.” A third man asked when he’d first arrived, and he said “back when I was young, like him – been here a long time now. I’m a real native.”
The third man replied, “Well, I was born here. I guess that makes me more a native than you.” Then a fourth man spoke up, saying, “My family’s been here for generations – my grandfather’s grandfather came for gold, and stayed to build our ranch. I’m much more a native than any of you guys will ever be.”
Hearing that, a fifth man abruptly stood up and said “Well, me, I’m a Californio – my folks came up to Alta California a couple of centuries ago, long before it was taken over by you Americans.” The group fell silent as he walked away. Then a sixth man, who had been quietly listening all along, cleared his throat to say, “My people have been here for thousands of years. It’s always been a beautiful place, and he’s right – it’s a good place to be.”
Who belongs here is not a simple question, not one to be answered by deciding who’s been here longest, or who to include or exclude – who is worthy and who is not. It is more a koan – a question asked in the Zen tradition, to be answered in the way a door is answered: by opening it. Something significant is asking to enter, and it is for us to admit whatever wants in.
My walks through the regional park with a learned and caring Buddhist teacher have led me to understand that everyone, indeed, every sentient being that is here, belongs here – in our family, in our community, in our nation, and on our planet. Anything that is here must be recognized as being here, and must be accounted for – including the path we walk. There is a note pinned above my desk that reads, “I am a part of the sentient cosmos, and without me it would be less complete.” In fact, I am an intimate part of it, as is everyone and everything else, which should no more be separated from this place than ideas can be separated from the mind, nor hope from the heart.
We really cannot shut out an inevitable truth; what is true must be accounted for, and if not by our own intelligent design then, unfortunately, by some particularly dire consequence. We’d like to ignore (and cannot) the unpleasant fact that our supersaturated planet suffers from an increasing overpopulation, and diminishing resources to support it. We have left the Holocene epoch – which began some 12,000 years ago when humanity as we know it emerged from the last ice age – and we have entered the Anthropocene epoch, characterized by our overwhelming impact upon our planet in the profligate consumption that includes a proliferation of technologies, despite the depletion of resources.
This has always been a troubled planet. Migrations of refugees are on constant move from troubled places to places that then become troubled. Thousands of refugees have died at sea, trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar into Bangladesh. A million Syrians have entered Europe, seeking asylum from the conflict that began in their country seven years ago. Caravans of Central Americans fleeing their homes have approached our own southern borders – and we cannot stop them. We can build walls, but, as was said in a popular film, “build it, and they will come.” Isolation only exacerbates the problem it seeks to avoid, and is really, after all, impossible. Diversity, on the other hand, is enriching, though inconvenient, and need not be divisive.
The other day – during dedication ceremonies at the opening of Tolay Lake Regional Park to the public – Greg Sarris, Chair of the Graton Rancheria, received a standing ovation when he spoke for the people that have known the lake to be a sacred healing place. He talked about the people that have come for thousands of years, from places as far away as Canada and Mexico, to be healed there, and how severely it had been damaged by the colonists that drained the lake for farmland. He told us how the lake has called out to be healed, and how county officials have answered that call, and have joined with the Sonoma Land Trust and the indigenous people still here to heal the lake – and how healing the lake has healed the people as well.
Indigenous people have an intimate relationship with the land, and know that the land is also sentient – sensing and responding to the presence of the people that belong here. As I’ve said before, the word “indigenous” comes from the Latin word indigena, meaning sprung from the land – and part of it. May we all recognize our indigenous nature and, though it may be difficult at times, may we all know our place here, and understand how we all belong here, in this beautiful place – this very good place to be.
Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org