Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Experiences in a Birch Bark Tepee

I had departed the car without my coat, and was regretting it. The rain had not started until I was well past a reasonable point of turning back, and was now falling as a steady heavy mist, as we Washingtonians like to call it. I longed for a hat, for obvious reasons if you've ever seen my head.

I had been walking through the "low" forest of northern Ontario, which I personally find attractive. In October, as it now was, the leaves of the Aspen and Birches tended to a bright and pleasant yellow. Here in the river bottoms the forest lacked a significant component of evergreens, but at slightly higher elevations, the Larch needles were also clad in yellow, tending towards the rust, and were just about ready to fall. The overstory was 30-40 feet high, and would not get taller; a far different forest than we see in the Puget Sound.

As I began to become concerned about water in my ears, which always seems to be a precursor of an earache if not a full blown cold, I came upon a collection of Birch-bark tepees, set beside the Kaministiquia River. I had seen no one on my journey, and was feeling quite alone with my thoughts. Nature and I, it seemed, were the only inhabitants of the forest on this cold and rainy afternoon. I approached the collection of primitive houses and peeked inside the first, and then the second. The latter seemed more inviting, so I entered, and stood just out of the rainfall inside the doorway. Empty of life, yet full of human habitation, I stood and enjoyed the feeling of being in the tepee, and the cessation of rain on my head.

From the outside, a Birch tepee looks_ to be a patchwork of rectangular pieces of peeled bark, overlapping one another in a seemingly random way.

From inside the design becomes clearer, as the interwoven strands of deer hide, stiffeners, and poles are crafted into a structure of rigidity and strength. The wind will not lift the sheets of bark from the poles, and the rain cannot find a path of entry into the warm and secure inside, save for those that fall naturally through the opening formed at the gathering of poles at the top. Together, the poles and the bark form a thin separation between two areas that have now become important to me; that which is within the tepee, and that which is outside. The sound of the rain is strong now, and I am glad to be inside.

Still standing, I take stock of the interior. In the center is a fire pit, ringed with softball-sized stones. There is evidence of a recent fire, with white wood ashes still looking loose and fluffy. An incompletely burned log rests across the pit, inviting another fire to be begun, but I have no intention of starting it.

Surrounding the pit is a wide band of spruce boughs, stretching to the tepee walls. This is clearly the sitting and lying space, having been prepared for the occupants to sit and sleep without contact with the ground. I am surprised to see two bearskin bedrolls pushed to the outside of the spruce bough area. Could someone actually sleep here?

To my left is a collection of implements and tools. On top of the pile are bentwood snowshoes. Beside them is a child's sled, made entirely of wood including curved runners made from soaking maple slats in water, splitting them into multiple pieces from one end only, and then tying them to a frame through the use of thongs. The two sides of the runners are identical, indicating that the craftsman prepared the runners from the same original piece of wood. The size of the sled could only be for very small children, and it has the look of never having been used in snow.

To my right is the only piece in the tepee of any color. It is a baby bundling board, with a cotton and deer hide fastener. The cotton piece has been decorated with blue ribbon, and the blue-ness stands out like a neon sign in the otherwise brown and wood-like tepee interior. Next to the bundling board is a stack of firewood, and beyond that the canvas door covering, standing open.

The rain is now falling hard enough to soak the canvas, which is dripping on my foot. I decide to fully enter the tepee, and I sit next to the fire pit, facing it.

What must it have been like for the pre-colonial inhabitants to live in tepees like this? Sitting here I recall the tepee scenes from "Little Big Man" and "Dances with Wolves", where the men sit and women work around the fire. It always seemed to me that they left the door flap open too long when they entered and departed the tepee, especially in the winter. The frigid winter wind must fill the interior with a bone-chilling cold, which I doubt the skin coverings they wore could keep out, in its entirety. Can a small, smoky fire keep the interior warm, when the wind would howl through the trees, and the thin cracks between the bark pieces would let the wind whistle through?

The Men's Wisdom Council uses a Talking Stick after the fashion of native Americans, where the stick is passed to the man who is making a personal statement, and the others listen. It seems to me that the silent, sensual ambiance we seek to create in the artificial confines of our meeting room is here, in the tepee, in abundance. The very setting of being close to the river, the rustle of trees outside, the sound of raindrops on the sides of the tepee, the closeness of the interior, the smell of burnt wood, the mustiness of the furs, of rain falling into the fire making hissing sounds (I can hear it now, though the stones are quiet and cold), all produce an introspective melancholy that I associate with the process of sharing within the Council. Looking around the interior of the tepee I see the familiar faces, staring into the fire, smoke curling up through the open hole. I see the stick passing to each man, in turn sharing his concerns and thoughts, his joys and his personal challenges, and the stories he brings specifically to the council.

I am also struck by another thought, that comes unbidden, but carries with it a great sense of well-being and contentment. It is that this is a home in need of a woman. I can see a man and his wife making a home in a place such as this. The neatness and warmth that I feel here is what I expect to find in a well-kept home; neat in that there is not an excess of clutter or mis-placed items, and warmth in that this is a home where care and loving attention has been paid to the things that are important. Looking up, I see the skin of a beaver curing on a bent willow-stick hoop, having been tied to the hoop with care and attention.

Poles are strung across the tepee about head high for drying wet things in the heat of the fire. The thought of a man living alone in a tepee like this makes me feel isolated and depressed, but the thought of two people making a home here brings warmth and happiness.

The rain has let up now, and I decide my day should move on. I leave the tepee and head back to my car. The smell of wetness in the duff reminds me to look for mushrooms, which I find in great numbers. The Inky Caps are out, their shaggy tops bright white against the green grass next to the path. Though I am not able to stop and pick them, to consume them later after sautéing in a sizzling skillet of garlic butter, I can imagine that I have, and in my mind they are very good.

The rain, the forest, the mushrooms, and the tepee now seem to be in harmony, a part of the natural world with which we have lost contact, and need to rejoin. To be disconnected with these simple yet elegant facets of our past is to lose touch with ourselves and our place in nature. The hunter-gatherer stage of man's evolution is behind us and there is no going back, but there is value in maintaining contact. Just as our instincts are an inherent part of our being, formed in an age long ago, so our more recent past contains elements of who we are now.

Robert Bly discusses the need to experience a "sinking" or depression that marks the end of youth, and the beginning of the ascension into adulthood. It is not until a boy comes to understand that he is alone, away from mother's protection and father's guidance, that he will understand it is time for him to begin to connect to the world as an individual himself. The melancholy mood which seems a part of the Wisdom Council is an acknowledgment of this depressed time, and the catharsis of realization that it is up to each man to make his own way in life.

For me, the process of communing with the forest has always been a time of understanding this process of ascension: based on the ascent of man from forest living as an evolutionary development, and expressed as the ascent of an individual's id as a member of society. Stepping back into the forest is a way to reconnect with the early stages in the process of self-awareness, and underscores the strengths and future potentials of the id.

Next to the tepee is an immense fortification built by men whose individual abilities matched those of the tepee builders. The difference, in my eyes, is that the fort builders had evolved further in their understanding of the world, and brought with that understanding a need to take precautions and build forts. I suspect that if the tepee builders could have been made to understand and accept the mind-stage of the fort-builders, they would have run for their lives back into the woods as far as they could go, never to be seen again.

Old Fort William, Ontario
Desmond Smith
October, 16, 1994

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