A secret beach. Right in our own town, just a stone’s throw from Chicago, give or take twenty miles. We piled on coats and mittens on a frosty November morning before heading out to the rocky bluff path that winds its way down to the lake. For my girls, a sturdy six and an adventurous almost-three, “secret beach” evokes all the magic of summer, where we spend treasured time with my parents on an island off the Connecticut coast. There, narrow well-worn trails (or a short dinghy trip in the “Greater Scaupe”) lead you to tiny beaches with extraordinary wonders, like rocks. Rocks seem to have the power to transform my girls into penguins, collecting stones with all the seriousness and devotion required for nest building and rearing young.
“Babing suit?” my two-year old wondered, as we put on jackets and hats. Nope. Winter was around the corner. “Do you feel how cold the air has become?” We all agreed that for this outing we would leave our coats on. The water would also be too cold for tiny feet. No wading today. We struck a pact: wet sneakers would be our signal that it was time to return home. My six-year old signed on to the plan. My two-year old agreed: “Otay, momma.”
Bundled and brimming with anticipation, we walked toward the lake. “Where’s the trail?” my six-year-old asked. The car-less street was posted with signs: “Permit parking only from April 1 to September 30.” “Keep looking,” I said. I knew the trail was straight ahead, but it was disguised with carefully planted spruces. The landscapers had done a good job—for what they had been hired to do, anyway. “Where is it?” she asked again. I momentarily panicked. What if she asked me a different question: “Why have we never been to this secret beach before?” I tried out a response in my head: “Some of the grownups wanted this beach all to themselves; they didn’t want to share.” That didn’t sound good. The second part was better: “The sharers won, and now the village has built a beautiful trail—full of rocks—right down to the beach.” She didn’t ask.
“Straight ahead,” I encouraged my six-year old—and then she suddenly disappeared from view, behind the spruces. I too was eager and excited as I turned the corner onto the rocky path. As a momma, I have one sliver of penguin knowledge: without rocks, there are no flourishing young.
Having just finished Robin Kimmerer’s new book, Braiding Sweetgrass, I knew something else about rocks—that for the Potawatomi people, rocks are worthy of our deepest respect. As she puts it, “In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places” (p. 56). She explains the grammar of animacy:
Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, “Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.” We might snicker at such a mistake, but we also recoil from it. In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family... Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say, “What is it?” and we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is. (p. 55)
As I lifted my eyes from the rocks on the path, a sign caught my attention: “COYOTES ACTIVE IN THIS AREA.” The instructions followed: “If a coyote approaches, do not run or turn your back, be as big and loud as possible, wave your arms and throw objects.”
Two thoughts came to my head:
(1) the campground tale of a parent seeking a one-in-a-million photo-op by smearing honey on their child’s nose to attract a bear kiss (clearly a bad idea to the average parent, but maybe the sign’s coyote warning was aimed at such a “one-in-a-million” parent?).
(2) What would it look like to treat a coyote as respectfully as the Potawatomi treat a rock?
We wound our way down to the beach and the girls took off, loping into the wind, with their hair streaming behind them. Immediately melding into their newfound territory, the girls began rock collecting, plucking rocks from the water, yelping and running back from the waves that were rolling in. I ran back and forth between my girls countless times—making sure I would not lose track of my pups.
Of course, to run between one child and the other, I had to turn my back. On one of my loops back to my two-year-old, I found her splashing gleefully in the water, our agreement about wet sneakers clearly forgotten. I understood. The lure of the lake is strong, and wet sneakers are a small sacrifice. Inconsequential, really, except for the “parent” part of the pact we had made, which I now had to uphold. We would have to go. When she met my eyes, she remembered. Sensitive, sorry, she started crying right away. “Uppy,” she cried, too sad to walk back to the trail winding up the bluff. I scooped her up, and we three girls headed toward home.
The closer we came to the bluff trail, the more two-year-old sadness turned into two-year-old anger—the loud, wailing, flailing limbs kind of anger that is really hard to carry up a steep bluff. I tried putting her down. She melted into the trail, and her voice went up an octave. I picked her up again and walked up. As she kicked her legs and shrieked, her wet sneakers went flying off the trail in different directions. Apparently, we were the poster example of how to repel a coyote.
I was panting. My back hurt. As we finally cleared the top of the bluff and walked toward the hidden trailhead, I was again greeted with the ominous message about coyotes.
Had the beach “sharers” really won? What would it look like if we really shared this beach with our human kin? What about our non-human kin, like coyotes and rocks?
I took a deep breath, wanting to see the world through Potawatomi eyes. As described in Braiding Sweetgrass, Original Man was taught at a council of animals, “never damage creation, and never interfere with the sacred purpose of another being” (p. 211). What if these words had been the instructions on the sign at the top of the bluff? I left the “secret beach” with more questions than answers. And I am going to keep asking.
Photograph credits: Nina Sheffield (top); Gavin Van Horn (middle, bottom)