It all starts with the land

No matter where we are in Canada, we are never too far from a place where we can connect with the land. 

I live not that far from the centre of Toronto. This morning I took my dog Cinco through a break in the fence two blocks from our home. Twenty metres down all I could see was green, even if the noise above reminded me that six million other Canadians live close at hand.

I learned from the Anishnaabe journalist Tanya Talaga that the people of this land consider plants and animals to be All Our Relations. I read her book to learn about the horror of child suicides. But in the process I had a first insight into a worldview that sees all beings as equal in value and in constant interaction with us.

In my attempt to connect with the land this morning, I kept my eyes open on the walk, looking for a sign. I found one within minutes.

I saw three shkitagen on the stump of a fallen elm tree. Known by the Latin name Fomes fomentarius, these fungiare essential for starting fires in the traditional manner. When the fruiting bodies die and dry out and are lit with a spark, they can smoulder for long enough to help wood catch fire. Before we had matches and lighters, they were an essential supplies for Anishnaabe firekeepers, the people entrusted by the community to maintain the practice.

I sat in a clearing just above the stump and looked out over the forest that somehow still thrives just below Canada's largest city.

I have found my place. 

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Potawatomi writer Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about firekeepers. Fires are the gathering place around which people tell stories through the long winter months. Life is given meaning in the stories told, and community regenerated. Firekeepers are keepers of tradition as well as providers of warmth.

Many of the nations of this land share a tradition that tells of seven fires. Every time a people must pick up and move to another region to begin life again, the move is symbolized by the setting of a new fire as they settle in.  Some tell of six migrations, each taking their people to a new place.  When the settlers came and forced many nations to move, they carried their shkitagen with them and lit a new fire in the land they came to.

The Prophecy of the Seventh Fire foretells that another change is upon us. The land is under enormous strain and are at the point of forever breaking our connection to it.  We are staring at a future of poverty, conflict and displacement that will come if the bond is broken.

Or we can unite, all of us, indigenous and non-indigenous, first peoples and newcomers, speakers of French, English and other languages, young and old, around a new fire. A Seventh Fire around which we can build a new community, in relationship with the land and with one another.

You, my readers, and I, we can be shkitagen for that fire. The spark has already been lit, by those who tended the other fires amid every other challenge we could throw at them. There is plenty of fuel thanks to a natural world that keep on giving. And there are enough of us in settler society alarmed at the crisis the land faces and the harm done to its stewards, that we will not lack for oxygen. 

Once we have done our part and the flames take hold, a new community will be formed.

It all starts with connecting to the land. I invite you to find your own ravine, or maybe a garden, a beach to walk along. A cottage in the woods if you're lucky.

Then gather around and join in the stories we will tell together.