When you stand on Temple Mound at Ocmulgee Mounds in Macon, Georgia, you can look out across Walnut Creek and its floodplain. Interstate 16 runs less than a quarter-mile away, parallel to the Ocmulgee River. The creek runs beneath an interstate bridge to get to its mama, the Ocmulgee.
Yesterday when I was there the creek, floodplain, and river were one body of water, lapping at the interstate embankments and bridge pilings, swirling around leafless willows and river birch, flooding the park trails and also the boardwalk, with only the railing visible above water. Although the Ocmulgee is a blackwater river, the water everywhere was red as clay, hepatica-colored, saturated with the red silt from nasty construction projects upstream, the blood-sucking of a booming economy.
Red earth turns its water red.
Yesterday all day the sky looked as if an old wool blanket had been pulled across it, and occasionally rain poured out of the blanket. You could tell by looking up that more rain was coming. On the ground, the spring ephemerals were coming out, things like henbit and the tiniest violets in the world.
History will always find you, said the man who introduced the poet. He said a poet laureate embodies the soul of the nation, one moving now toward reconciliation.
Joy Harjo is the first Native American poet laureate of the United States.
Harjo said that the Ocmulgee Mounds touch her deeply. This is her ancestral home. The Creek Nation was forced to leave when Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. They left behind homes, cornfields, pottery, printing presses, food stores, horses, trading posts, burial grounds – so much they loved.
Harjo was 23 the first time she came to Macon. When she returns to visit, she is a ghost -- for the people who stayed behind, the people forced at gunpoint to leave were essentially killed.
She sang a song. Ah-le-na-le-no.
She was wearing a red, v-necked sweater with black pants and tan boots. Her black hair was thick. Circular earrings tangled in her long hair.
She read from An American Sunrise. She said that our spirits always ask us questions. Hers asked, "What did you learn here?" and that's how this book got started. She read "My Man's Feet" and "Redbird": I think of all poems as love poems, she said. Then she played her flute and sang a poem.
We were in the visitor's center, probably 250 people, about half of us in chairs, the rest standing. The room was rounded to look like a kiva. The earth, she's a circle, Harjo said. I was wedged behind a massive display, a thigh-high cabinet with a map of the territory printed on it, perching on a narrow concrete window ledge. Between the slats of the blinds I looked at Earth Mound, Great Temple Mound, Lower Temple Mound (2/3s of it was destroyed with the first railroad came through), Cornfield Mound.
A lot of powerful, intelligent people live in Macon, and I could see many of them when I looked around. The people were so beautiful. When Harjo played her flute, one woman in a long, multicolored skirt wiped her eyes.
The poet Gordon Johnston was standing beside the cabinet. He teaches at Mercer. He and Matt Jennings, who introduced Harjo, wrote a book on the Ocmulgee Mounds. Before the reading Gordon and I were talking. Gordon has been canoeing all the waterways of Georgia.
Gordon said something I've been thinking, that I've not heard anybody else say. He said, "This is the worst flooding I've seen since I've lived here." I agree. This is the worst flooding I've seen, I think my entire life. Only the roof of the picnic shelter is visible above water at Deen's Landing on the Altamaha. At English Eddy, where last fall somebody made a moonscape out of hundreds of acres, it's all standing water now, proving they logged a floodplain. Crossing the bridges, with so much water, is dizzying.
I asked Gordon if he'd paddled the Ohoopee, and he said no, so I invited him to come visit, told him I'd like to paddle with him.
Since we're talking about reconciliation, I could say a lot about reconciliation with the earth. But this is a blog-post, my first, and I'll just leave it with this: yesterday I heard the first Native American poet laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, read her poetry while her dead ancestors listened and while ancient ceremonial mounds, emerald with grass, rose high above the swirling red waters of the Ocmulgee.
"We all make our way back home eventually," Harjo said. "May we all find a way home."
Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead.