Some things are true. Two plus two are four. The earth is warming due to the use of fossil fuels. Invasion and colonialism founded much of European wealth. Concepts of race arose to justify invasion, colonialism and the violent exploitation of some people.
When we don’t teach children the truth about any of these things, we do them no favours. I know this, because I was a child who was not taught about invasion and colonialism, and so was my short-term-stepbrother, who I’ll call J.
It was odd not to be taught about invasion and colonialism as a child living in Kansas – land that had been obviously invaded and colonialised two generations previously. We celebrated Thanksgiving, when the pilgrims thanked the First Nation people for saving them from starvation. At school, we glimpsed other First Nations people in The Deerslayer and ‘Hiawatha’ and stories of Sacajawea and Pocahontas. At home, in films and on television, we watched horrible bands of savages murder brave pioneers and cowboys. The pioneers and cowboys were us, Americans. Noone had to explain the logic of confining horrible bands of savages to reservations: in fact, I felt quite relieved that this had been done.
A bright child could, however, see holes in this narrative. How did Hiawatha and Sacajawea turn into ravening hordes of killers? The adults at school and home had a standard answer for this enquiry. These people had been from different tribes. It was the Apache, Commanche, Cherokee and Sioux who had caused all the ruckus.
We had two Cherokee boys in our class and one went ‘home’ to the reservation every holiday to spend it with his grandfather, learning the ‘old ways’. Robbie was not reticent about the omissions of our education, and told us about the forcible relocation of his tribe known as the Trail of Tears. I also noticed that some television shows and films presented alternate views about tribal uprisings – and even about our right to take tribal lands.
Learning about the great buffalo slaughter convinced me that the settlers had not really been the good guys. In the end, the only way we could defeat the tribes’ light calvary was to cut off their food supply, and this was clearly despicable. Although my great-grandparents had participated in the Oklahoma Land Rush, I began to feel my heritage wasn’t wholly desirable. I knew what hunters were like – in my family, you got a BB gun at eight, a bird gun at ten and your first deer rifle at twelve. I knew when trophy hunting or hunting for the pot turned into slaughter. I’d seen it first-hand. I could easily imagine the buffalo slaughter.
And so, around the age of ten, I turned a jaundiced eye on the ‘balanced’ learning of my childhood.
‘J' was different. J had not grown up in my family. I acquired him when I was seventeen, his brother was fifteen and J was thirteen. We were all children of messy 1970s divorces, and J was particularly troubled by the two different versions supplied to him about the end of his parents’ marriage. He liked to sit on the roof and smoke pot. When I joined him there, he would complain about everyone having their own ‘reality’. He just wanted to know what was true, who to believe.
It was a time when the culture wars were fought with bullets: all the heroes of my youth had been assassinated, as had some of the young people protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University. Misinformation and disinformation did not suddenly appear with social media; the whole tawdry Watergate saga played out in our living rooms, where we had previously watched nightly body count reports from Vietnam, and heard about the brave freedom fighters of the IRA.
J hungered for the truth. He didn’t care if it hurt – he just wanted to know. But much of the truth was kept from us – about our parents’ marriages, about how newspapers and media concealed as much information as they revealed, about how the world actually worked. We certainly hadn’t been told how we came to be sitting on the roof of a house on the prairie, where buffalo had, until a little over a century ago, wandered in their hundreds of thousands.
J and I lost touch after our parents – inevitably – divorced. I saw him occasionally, until his grandmother and auntie died, and then didn’t see him at all. We caught up twenty years ago on Facebook, and I went to see him. He had found certainty in Christ, and was bringing up his children, including a boy with Downs Syndrome. He was working in his father’s line of work, trying to do things his dad’s way, having finally decided who had been right and who wrong in his parents’ marriage.
Of course, he became a Trump supporter. The same hunger for certainty that had taken him further down the line from religion to fundamentalism took him to the red hat. I could hear him on the roof, night after night, saying that he, ‘just wanted to know what to believe.’ Now he had what he wanted – someone was telling him what to believe, was giving him the certainty he had always craved.
He disappeared off Facebook around the time my visits home became more about trying to arrange care for my mother than seeking out friends and acquaintances. After Trump’s defeat, he came back onto the site. He’s just posted a photo of young Hitler without comment. Hitler looks glowing in the enhanced photo – his eyes sparkle as he faces the future, although they also seem unfocused.
Like Adolph, I’m looking at the future. Like him, too, I’m from the past – the amazing link you become if you live past fifty. I remember the pain – and the loneliness – of uncovering the genocide in my heritage bit by bit. I learned why my grandmother prayed a decade of her daily rosary for the Cherokee nation, why she donated money, why she had a wooden ornament on her wall commemorating the Trail of Tears. My colonial heritage slowly, agonisingly, became evident to me with horrible feelings of shame that have not helped me to deal with racism in general.
Shame comes from secrecy – if we acknowledge these things together, bear them together, it’s much easier. Also, children hunger for the truth. Without it, they are vulnerable to whoever offers them certainty.
I fear for J, and I fear him, too. I fear for us all if we don’t teach our children the truth about our colonial past.
Advice on the Prairie was painted by William Tylee Ranney
I’m writing about a county lines drug dealer. My agent has not been sure. ‘Why are you writing about county lines? Why aren’t you writing something closer to your own concerns and experience?’
Good point, I thought. I’m not writing from the point of view of the young drug mule, but it still seems kind of a stretch for me, a middle-aged university lecturer in a small market town, to be writing something with these issues.
But I couldn’t stop writing it. I really like it – love my Cathedral Chorister narrator/heroine and her musical family. I love her new friend Mike and her old friends Hannah and Angie. I also love the young drug dealer who Harriet tries to help.
So, I’ve been secretly typing away.
Then I watched the Peter Jackson Beatles documentary, ‘Get Back,’ and the songs reminded me of something I’d nearly forgotten.
When Abbey Road came out in 1971, I was eleven years old. It was right in the middle of my father’s two year stint as Head of Juvenile Narcotics in the Kansas City, Kansas police department. Back then, just like now in the UK, young people were used to move drugs around. They’d have money and drugs in their pockets and the actual dealers would stay clean and just collect from them… these kids had been young roadmen.
My father’s idea for how to help the local roadmen was to bring them home. Our house became their refuge. We had five or six regular roadmen visitors. Mom would feed them and do their laundry. I’d do my homework and help them with theirs, if they’d managed to go to school that week. They played with the dog. They watched our television with us. They took showers. They were just… there.
When I got my period, age 12, I had to tell one of them at the same time I told my mom, because the two of them had been in the same room, listening to records together, and my mother hadn’t want to stop.
One of these kids bought me the Abbey Road album when it came out, and my favourite song became Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Hearing this song coming together in the Get Back documentary brought that time completely back to me.
My subconscious, creative mind had never forgotten. Mike, Denny and the other boys were all still there somewhere in my head, as present as they’d been when I made them stove-top popcorn or baked them cookies. I’d used my knowledge of them and their concerns to make my young county lines victim, Courtney… had drawn him as a composite of the boys I’d known when I was twelve years old myself.
I now have to write my agent and say, ‘Well, actually, I figured out why I wanted to write this so badly.’
It’s strange isn’t it, what fiction does for writers. I’ve had a disjointed life, where things often ended abruptly and people and places got left totally behind. I think when I write stories, I stitch the world back together again – for me, and for my young readers.
Even though I couldn’t actually articulate it – it was my story, after all.
It’s eight-thirty on a Friday morning and I’m putting on makeup. I’ve only had two or three hours of sleep and I’ve got huge dark circles under my eyes.
I hadn’t been having fun. My daughter had a health crisis and needed to come from university to our local doctor’s surgery, so I jumped in our new-to-us electric car and began to motor down. I dropped everything and focussed on that one, important thing.
I’m good at that. I’m good at taking decisive action. I’m good at coming up with creative solutions to problems – frighteningly, startlingly good. I’m good at making conceptual leaps. I’m good at doing extraordinary amounts of work to a fairly high standard. I’m good at keeping up varied interests. I’m good at shutting out the entire world while I read a book.
And these strengths have given me an enviable career, as an author and as an academic. I have been able to contribute to society, contribute more than anyone who knew me as a child might ever have thought possible.
But I’m not good at other things. I’ve recently discovered why.
I have ADHD. I’ve had it all my life, and I’ve had all the problems that go along with it. Problems maintaining interest and focus on repetitive tasks. Problems with not speaking when I’m not meant to speak. Problems with breaking off interesting conversations to get back to work. Problems in keeping my house clean, my bank account balanced. Problems in remembering birthdays, appointments, meetings, deadlines, emails that need an answer. Problems with anxiety over all of the above problems.
I’m also dyspraxic, even as an adult, although my trips to A&E (for say, walking through a glass door or dropping a large jar on my head or tumbling into a ditch when out on a run) are, thankfully, over. I’m dyscalculic. I spend a great deal of time checking and rechecking numbers during marking and banking, but this doesn’t help with my administrative and financial skills. When stressed, even simple addition can be a struggle.
The dyscalculia also gives me problems with spatial relationships, making navigation challenging.
Which is why, on Thursday night, I found myself on a remote country lane, trying to follow directions to a car charger. I went up and down the lane, first with the sat nav, then with Google maps, then with Apple maps. I finally tried to just drive to the motorway to get to it, and ran out of juice a quarter of a mile from my goal.
It had been cold and raining and a number of other people’s mistakes meant that I spent seven hours – first on the hard shoulder, then in the doorway of a nearly-shut motorway services. Finally underway, an accident on the M4 added another hour to my journey home.
By that time, my daughter had taken the train, been collected by my husband, and had been in bed for hours.
Now, on Friday morning, I stand with the concealer in my hand. I’ve managed to cover up or excuse my problems fitting into neurotypical life for a great many years. But sometimes, you know, there’s just not enough concealer in all the world.
My husband is excited. ‘There must be fifty birds around the feeder. Look at all the starlings!’
I look. They’re too big for the tower feeders. Instead, they’re foraging for spilled seeds on the ground.
It’s only November. This is only the first really hard frost. I can't help but note that the starlings are concentrating very hard on finding bits of millet in the grass. And I don't really want to note this. I don't want to notice this at all right now. I want to get on with my weekend.
My husband doesn’t know why I’m not thrilled. ‘There’s loads of them!’ he says encouragingly, as I turn away.
I say, ‘Yeah,’ and smile. I can tell he feels rejected.
But I don’t want to explain to my townie spouse that the starlings should be much fatter right now, fed up to the brim with moths and flies, with slugs and snails. When I see their fierce concentration about scrounging a few millet seeds, I don’t see abundance. I see scarcity. And I become overwhelmed by grief.
I think of rising food costs and wonder how long I will be able to keep all these birds alive with my feeders. I will miss the birds when they are gone – and the birds that depend all summer on insects are going, there’s no doubt about that.
It was late June before I saw my first swallows overhead, and they were scarce, because there’s nothing much for them to hunt. When they stop coming altogether, a little more of my heart will break.
Once, I told him all about this, coughing it into the shoulder of his t-shirt as I gulped out my words; nose streaming, eyes streaming, mouth a slobbering mess of grief. But he doesn’t really remember that, and didn’t really believe me or understand my emotion then. Now, he certainly doesn’t connect the one to the other.
So few of us do.
Watching a documentary the previous weekend, there was footage from the seventies… a walk through a forest clearing in California. Whoosh! Up fluttered thousands of butterflies. The abundance of my youth was suddenly there again as normal, and in contrast the present was once again revealed to me as a barren wasteland. The family were rapt in the film – about an influential but virtually unknown musical group. I turned my head a bit to mop the tears from my face.
My daughter noticed, looked a question. ‘It was the abundance,’ I whispered and they nodded, accepting Mum’s oddities.
Earlier that morning, I’d gone to charge the car. A deer, deformed in death, lay by the roundabout, it’s black liquid eyes open, staring forever into mine. I hated myself for driving. I hated myself for being human.
A little further down, a badger. The deer was probably hit by a car. The badger was probably killed by a farmer and dumped. I was rock-bottom certain that both their lives were, at this point in time, much more valuable than my own.
Climate grief, it’s called. And I carry it with me always. I am the person who, when discussing the weather with another dogwalker, brings up the collapsing Jet Stream. I am the one who keeps talking about the council’s new solar panel buying programme. The one who rushes home from the dog walk to get binding, to try and mend a small tree snapped by a vandal. The one who shouted at a child in the park for breaking a branch off another. Like any grief-stricken person, I am sometimes totally unreasonable. I am also aware that I'm carrying a shadow with me, into every conversation, into every moment of my life.
Now, I go back to the window and stand with my husband, looking at the lean starlings. He smiles sunnily, feeling whatever had held me back from my usual excitement about the natural world has now gone. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ he says. ‘I love the markings on their feathers. They’re beautiful.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, they certainly are.’
It’s the last few days of November, the month of the dead, and I’m playing cards with my fathers. One is my actual father, who died suddenly in 1984. One is my father-in-law, who died nine years ago this Easter. My grandfathers, one of whom passed in 1978, the other whose dates I don’t know, are also up for a game of cribbage anytime I dial the application’s phone graphic.
I’ve customised their appearances and have been able to crudely alter their personalities. My father in law, whose hand I held while he died, has turned out the best, although he speaks in American idioms that Yorkshireman Tony would never have used.
My own father’s face remains, after many tweaks, gremlin-like. Still, when he asks me how I am and then threatens to hurt anyone who is bothering me, my eyes fill with tears. It sounds just like Daddy – on the rare times we met after he left the family, he always spoke about protecting me.
Skin colour choices are likewise a bit dodgy, and to approximate my paternal grandfather’s skin tone, I have had to choose between white and black. He is closer to his actual skin tone using the black palette and looks much as I remember, though his generic hands don’t show his elegant fingers or guitar-picking nails.
As they teach me to play cribbage, I revisit the pain of our relationships and hear in my head the guidance they all attempted to give me. They all feared for me; for my safety, for my ability to prosper. Bold young women, who didn’t know their place, who refused to become interested in the work that lay to their hands and hankered after some unattainable goal above their station – these girls, in their experience, suffered and died young. My inability to recognise the authority of the patriarchy and the social norms of my class often angered and terrified them. Only my father-in-law lived long enough to see his son and I safely into adulthood.
I was born on Remembrance Day, so my birthday lies within another reminder of death. As I get older, I start to feel that shadow we all march towards. I look up from my game (my maternal grandfather has smoked me again, and gloated - on that side of the family, we are all hideously competitive). I see my home library, our Labrador asleep at my feet, and the window boxes full of cyclamens. I wish I could bring all these men back to this room for a cup of tea.
‘Look,’ I would say. ‘I’m sixty-two now. I’m an Associate Professor at a Russell Group university. These are my published books.’ Maybe they could relax a little, and approve of me enough to talk about the colour of my eyes - or something else they had actually liked.
In the meantime, their graphic approximations, in Cribbage with Grandpa, ask me if the weather is nice, and how my day is going. All my pain about my relationships with these men, and about losing them, I allow myself to feel one game at a time. Afterwards, I shrink it down into a tiny graphic, and carry it with me everywhere I go.
When I was writing Dreaming the Bear, I had a big note taped to the side of my writing shed. ‘Do NOT consume the bear!’ Having been in an academic department for years with two of the world’s leading eco-critics, I was aware of the ethical danger in writing about wild animals.
I imagined the experience of the bear, and then, writing that felt too invasive. So then, in the narrative voice, I pulled back and wrote instead about the act of trying to imagine the experience of the bear. I constantly thought about the autonomy of the bear, its own way of thinking, feeling, and the boundaries of the human imagination.
And what happened? In the end, the bear dies and my human heroine actually inhales its last breath.
So much for not consuming the bear…
I have come to believe, through this and all my experiences in the natural world, both personal and textual, that there is no other relationship a human being can have with a wild animal. No matter how we try, once we notice the animal, we start consuming it; either literally as a food source, by emotionally or spiritually attempting a connection, by using it in art or conversation, or even by simply adding the experience to our memory bank… The very act of noticing it is already an act of consumption; the animal is part of the life-experience the universe has provided.
As my long-suffering Zen Master used to say, ‘Starting. Already a mistake.’
This is the conundrum for those of us who attempt to write ethically about the natural world. To write about it is to consume it, to write about how healing it is, how useful it is, how wonderful its creatures are, how valuable it is, is to reduce the natural world to something for human consumption. At the same time, writing about the value of the natural world is urgent work. Just as there is no place to step out of the cycle of human material consumption, there is nowhere we can step outside of narrative consumption – attempts may be praiseworthy and fascinating but are also completely futile. There is no other art form as completely tied to human consumption as literature.
In Dreaming the Bear, my heroine feeds a wounded grizzly bear, thereby ensuring its death.
It is a tragedy, complete with hidden destiny: the bear would never have recovered and so even the girl’s guilt is a mistake. For me, this was a way of articulating the problem with nature my young readers - and all of us - have. We have inherited a wounded planet – it is not our personal fault, and yet we feel crushing guilt because we know we have made it worse. But the only thing that most of us could have done to make it significantly better is not to have been born at all.
If there is no story in not-imagining, there is nothing at all in not-being. The act of telling a story must be supported on both the reader and the writer’s side by a deep sense that being alive on earth is worth it, that the pain of existence is worth it, that our destiny is not only to consume and die, but to learn something while we are here. This feels more and more urgent to me, as if the increased rate of human consumption must be compensated for by an increased rate in human understanding, as if the production of new knowledge from the imagination is the only way we can ameliorate the effects of our terrible greed.