Friday, December 13, 2013

Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is commonly called the U.P., thus its residents are Yoopers.  The arrival of civilization in the U.P. created a number of resource extraction colonies to disassemble the wilderness paradise.  Whites were attracted to the region to mine the furs, fish, copper, iron, and forests.  Long winters and marginal soils have spared it from being obliterated by industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl.  Population density is low.  The biggest city, Marquette, has just 21,000 souls.

Richard Dorson (1916-1981) was born into an affluent family in New York City.  He received his PhD from Harvard.  When he was hired by Michigan State University in 1944, he had never heard of the U.P.  In 1946, he boarded the ferry at Mackinaw City, landed in the U.P., and spent five months researching the folklore of the region.  He visited mining communities, lumber camps, beer gardens, and Indian villages, seeking out the venerable storytellers.  They included the Anishinabe, Cornish, Finns, Irish, French, Slovenians, Croatians, Swedes, and many others.  He met quite a few fascinating characters, listened to a lot of tall tales, and obviously had a good time in the process.

Then he wrote Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, which presented a scruffy parade of rustic Yoopers.  Harvard published it in 1952, after MSU refused to.  Dorson’s book is valuable because it recorded the essence of a number of cultures, many of which no longer exist.  Typical Yoopers were the opposite of wealthy East Coast dandies.  The whites often came from the lower classes of Europe, forced out of their homelands by the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution.  Many had little or no education; more than a few were illiterate.  They were strong, hard-working people who did not bloat and rot from soft indoor living.

Most of Dorson’s sources were born in the nineteenth century, but the oral cultures they came from had deep roots in the past, and deep roots in the living Earth.  There were Yoopers who could shapeshift into bears, wolves, pigs, and owls.  Potent curses could cause the death of others.  Anishinabe and Finnish shamans had powers for counteracting black magic.  Fairies were everywhere.  Yoopers spent their lives in a land that was spiritually alive, rich with power and vitality.

Dorson was hanging out with folks who were semi-Medieval at a time when modern America was dropping nuclear bombs, buying televisions, building skyscrapers, and zooming around in ridiculous automobiles.  Sadly, the ancient art of storytelling, humankind’s oldest profession, was being brushed aside by modern mass entertainment — pulp magazines, soap operas, and movie thrillers.

In the nineteenth century, Yooper communities spent long winters in isolation.  The waterways froze, the roads were buried under deep drifts of snow, and stores had no fresh produce for months.  In springtime, when the ice melted, the arrival of the first ship was always a day of joyful celebration and clattering church bells — reconnection with the outer world.  There was no television, radio, internet, phones, or recorded music.  Entertainment on long winter nights came from telling old stories and singing old songs — experiences shared by gatherings of family and neighbors, not in isolation with techno-gadgets.

Many communities had bloodstoppers, who could stop heavy bleeding by speaking words of power, or a simple touch.  There were far-sighted seers who could foretell the future, and psychics who could communicate with the spirits of the dead, or accurately describe things that were only known by you.

In those days, life was filled with mysteries — accidents, illness, deaths, disasters.  Misfortunes were often explained as being the result of malevolent acts of evil people.  The Anishinabe referred to these dark beings as bearwalkers, who could appear as animals, birds, or lights glowing in the night.  The French called them loup-garous, something like werewolves, devious shapeshifters. 

As we move into the post-antibiotic era, the post-carbon era, the era of spectacular climate juju, life will be filled with mysteries and misfortunes once again.  Without the ultra-expensive safety net of high-tech medicine, folks who are unwell will either recover or die, as the fates desire.  There will be few stores, if any.  We’ll be far less mobile.  Communication will be limited to those around us.  We’ll actually have to go outdoors — yikes!

The whites ravaged the U.P. because they knew almost nothing about ecological history, the mistakes of their ancestors.  They did not have great powers of foresight, nor deep reverence for the health of the ecosystem.  They remained addicted to an incoming flow of goods from distant industrial centers.  Few of them unplugged themselves from civilization and learned to live with the land.

The Anishinabe preserved a long tradition of reverence and respect for the family of life.  Dorson noted that they “all live in the woods as if the cities of white men never existed.”  Of course, anyone who has ever experienced a city will understand why.  They inhabited the same region as the whites, but the land was their home, a sacred place, where they were reverend guests — an entirely different relationship.

Today, we have fabulous education systems, and instant access to staggering quantities of information.  Today, there are specialists who actually understand ecological history, and are extremely distressed by the mindless destruction caused by consumer society.  But our schools do not major in teaching reading, writing, and ecological history.  Our religious leaders do not teach us reverence and respect for creation.  Tomorrow doesn’t matter.

Oddly, most of the graduates rolling off the academic assembly line these days are barely distressed at all.  They are lost in a fantasy world, mesmerized by a moronic belief in perpetual economic growth, eager to devote their lives to accumulating and discarding unnecessary stuff.  Sadly, the more our society is educated, the faster we destroy the future.  Circle what is wrong with this picture. 

In 1900, many whites dreamed that their children would spend their lives mining and cutting pines.  But in the decades that followed, as “infinite” resources became scarce, their communities and culture would be scattered to the winds.  Many moved to Detroit, where there were no wolves, bears, or fairies, and their children were raised in the urban consumer culture, which displaced the old rustic one.  Importantly, in just one generation, the culture of the youngsters was very different from the culture of their elders.  Cultures can make sudden sharp turns, for better or worse.

Another huge cultural shift is certain to occur as the collapse of industrial civilization proceeds.  At some point, all the daffy infantile balderdash of the consumer worldview will have no purpose whatsoever.  The throbbing lust for McMansions, giant pickups, and huge TVs will become meaningless.  The game of life will be nothing like today.

What can we do today to prepare the young for the coming storms?  It would be awesome if we could help them acquire the intelligence needed to replace the loony consumer culture with a new one that is far more in balance with the family of life, something similar to the Anishinabe perhaps.  We need to help them as much as we can before the lights go out.

Dorson, Richard M., Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1952.


In 1983, I biked to Wales and visited the hamlet of Cwmbelan, where my great-grandfather Richard E. Rees was born in 1843.  I had a beautiful experience chatting with Gwen Ingram, who lived in the old mill.  She relished the old days when the hamlet thrived.  Her father and grandfather were carpenters.  The water wheel drove their machinery.  The schoolhouse next door had been full of the sounds of playing children.  There were two pubs, two chapels, a post office, and over a hundred people.

Gwen told me about Mr. Morris, the village blacksmith.  He was a conjurer, a white witch, a healer.  When sickness or accident occurred, Mr. Morris was summoned, not a doctor.  In fact, doctors often came to visit the conjurer.  Once a year, for a small fee, Mr. Morris would cast a spell on the doctors, which would protect them from harmful curses.

He was wise in the use of herbs and potions, but he also had other powers.  When a horse ripped its leg on barbed wire and began bleeding heavily, the conjurer was called.  He hurried out of the village.  As soon as he entered the same field that the horse was in, the bleeding stopped.

She told me another story.  Many years ago, when the factory was a woodworking shop, the water wheel stopped one day.  It had jammed.  Her father went out to repair it.  Her grandfather was inside working.  The wheel started again, suddenly.  A saw began cutting into her grandfather’s knee.  It was serious.

Mr. Morris was called.  As soon as he entered the room, the bleeding stopped.  “It will be all right now,” he said.  A doctor who saw the wound said that the leg would have to go.  Mr. Morris disagreed, “It will heal.”  Old Mr. Ingram had to use a cane after that, but he could still walk the entire ridge of the roof when he was 70 years old.  I asked her why Mr. Morris hadn’t passed his knowledge on to his children.  “They didn’t have the intelligence,” she said.

I spent two afternoons talking with Gwen.  She was an inspiration, a beautiful soul.  I had finished my family research and had to go.  Money was running short, and I had to get back to Luxembourg.  I said good-bye to Gwen.  I said good-bye to Cwmbelan.

Maybe a week later, I was in Luxembourg.  By dusk, I had a neighbor at the camp, a 22-year old Swiss lad on a Yamaha.  I had two 98-cent bottles of wine.  He had a fifth of scotch.  We commenced an exchange of adventure stories.  He had been in Ireland.  He was a carpenter and an architecture student.

When I was talking about Wales and Mr. Morris, the conjurer, he lit up.  My friend was a conjurer too.  His grandmother and aunt practiced earth magic.  They had taught him.  He never talked to anyone about this because most people saw it as silly superstition.  I didn’t.  I pumped him.  Yes, stopping bleeding is easy.  Fevers, headaches, body pains all had cures.  People who his family couldn’t cure were sent to an old man in the hills.

He had found some old books while renovating a house, books of conjury: The Fifth and Sixth Books of Moses, and The Book of Seven Secrets.  I wanted to learn these methods, read the books.  Would he be willing to teach me?  No.  It is traditional that you only pass the knowledge on to two people in your life.  They have to be younger than you.  He was saving it for his children.  It was reassuring that the arts hadn’t been lost to time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

beautiful. as always.