THOUGHTS FOR EARTH DAY 2021
Today I am remembering a story that is widespread among the various tribe of North America’s plains and deserts. The details vary slightly from tribe to tribe and from telling to telling, but the story itself is remarkably consistent over a huge area. So, as many indigenous storytellers would say, “I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but I can promised it is true.”
My telling here is adapted from the Cheyenne story as recorded in Barry Lopez’s book, Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America (NY: Avon Books, 1977).
When I was in high school, I was privileged to spend a summer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. It was a time whose reverberations are still active in my life, so perhaps I’ll write more about it later. Although I did not learn this story while I was there, it is still within that particular landscape that I envision its events. Please picture it with me — some low pine-clad hills rising behind the village, but mostly flat plains stretched widely out to the horizon. It is summer. Hot, dry. Clear blue sky, relentless sun. Few trees , rare patches of shade. There is a strong scent of sagebrush, with the underlying smell of ancient windblown dust. A hawk circling overhead has an unobstructed view for miles and miles and miles.
So. Coyote was walking along and as he went, he saw someone doing the strangest thing. That person said “Eyes, go out!” & his eyes flew right out of his head and hung from the tallest tree. Then, after he had looked all around and seen everything, that person called “Eyes, come back!” & his eyes flew right back into his head.
“Oh,” said Coyote to himself. “I want to do that!” Coyote sidled up to that person and asked sweetly. “Mister, you are so smart. Please teach me how to do that thing with my eyes.” And that person shrugged and said, “It’s not hard. Just speak in a firm tone and say ‘Eyes, go out!’ When you have seen all that you need to see, call ‘Eyes, come back!’
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Coyote, bouncing up and down with excitement. “I can do that.”
“But,” said that person in a stern voice, “there is one thing you must remember. Never ever do it more than 4 times in one day.”
“Yes, yes,” muttered Coyote impatiently. “Never more than four.” And the strange person left and went on his way.
“Now,” said Coyote, with a big grin. “Eyes, go out!” & sure enough, his eyes flew right out of his head and hung from a branch way up in the tallest tree. Coyote could see everything! He looked and looked, but after awhile he got a little worried and he called “Eyes, come back!” Sure enough, his eyes flew right back into his head!
“Well, that was easy,” said Coyote. “Nothing to it!” And again he called, “Eyes, go out!” And up they went to the highest branch of the tree. He looked and looked. When he saw a rabbit nibbling on a clump of grass—way off in the distance—Coyote began to feel hungry. He called, “Eyes, come back!’ & back they flew & off Coyote ran to get his breakfast. After he had eaten, Coyote thought to himself, “I’m thirsty. But I’m afraid Old Man Mountain Lion might be resting by the creek.” He thought a bit and a 3rd time he called “Eyes, go out!” He looked and looked. There was nobody by the creek, so he called “Eyes, come back!” & ran off to drink the cool clear water.
It was so easy. Coyote was full without having spent the whole morning searching for food and water. He sat down. After awhile, he felt bored. Coyote began to wonder what Fox and his wife were up to. A 4th time he called “Eyes, go out!” Coyote looked and looked. He grinned, he chuckled, he began to laugh. “Ha!” Coyote said to himself. “I’ll have to tease Fox about that next time we meet.” Then “Eyes, come back!” & back they came.
Coyote sat. And he sat. He scratched his ear. He stretched. He was bored. It was too early for lunch but, all the same, he began to wonder whether the fat prairie dogs had come out of their burrows to enjoy the morning sun. “Eyes, go out!” Coyote called. Up they flew and hung from the tree. Coyote looked and looked. Sure enough, he could see a town of unsuspecting prairie dogs way off to the east. “Eyes, come back!” Coyote called.
Nothing happened. “Eyes, come back!” But those eyes just stayed up in the highest branch of the tree. Coyote demanded, Coyote pleaded, Coyote made promises. Still, his eyes just hung up there in that tree. The sun beat down and shriveled those eyes. The flies gathered and walked all over them. And Coyote couldn’t see a thing.
At last, Coyote lay down and dozed a bit. Suddenly he woke to a tickle, tickle, tickle on his cheek. It was Mouse, who had come to cut some hair from that dead Coyote to line his nest. Quick as could be, Coyote opened his jaws and caught Mouse’s tail between his teeth. “Help! Help!” Mouse cried. “Please let me go. I saw that you had lost your eyes & I thought you were dead. I’m sorry.” But Coyote kept his teeth clamped tight together.
“Can you see my eyes up in the tree?” he asked Mouse.
“Yes,” said Mouse. “They are all blackened and shriveled from the sun. Would you like me to climb up and bring them down to you?”
Coyote thought. If they were blackened and shriveled, would his eyes be any good? And if he let go of Mouse, would Mouse just run away? “No,” Coyote answered. “I want you to give me one of your eyes.”
Mouse thought. He thought of his wife and children waiting at home. He thought about Coyote’s sharp teeth. Mouse took out one of his bright, beady little eyes and placed it in Coyote’s left eye socket. Coyote could see! Not much. Just a little. But it was better than being blind. Coyote opened his mouth in a big sigh of relief — and Mouse darted away.
Coyote got up and went along. But that eye was so tiny, he had to keep tilting his head so it didn’t fall out. Buffalo saw Coyote staggering past and called, “Coyote, what’s wrong?”
Coyote answered, “I’ve lost my eyes and this Mouse eye is too small. Please give me one of yours.”
And Buffalo, whose heart is great, took out one of his eyes and placed it in Coyote’s right eye socket. But that Buffalo eye was so big and heavy. It pulled Coyote’s head down—and then the Mouse eye began to roll out and Coyote had to tilt his nose back up to keep it in. And so… off Coyote lurched along wearily, off into the world.
Well, it may not be, for us, a very satisfying story.
It doesn’t have the neat “happily-ever-after” resolution that Disney and the advertising empires have taught us to expect. It sounds a bit too much like …. Life.
And there’s something else that troubles me about that story. A nagging itch, like a flea behind a coyote’s ear…. What is it? … I think it’s a sense of recognition — self-recognition — as if I were looking into a clear mirror and beholding myself and my Western Enlightenment culture.
“Eyes, go out!” I think first of the unmanned drones the U.S. seems to send so casually into the Middle East — peering into neighborhoods to see whether they will choose to rain down death. “Eyes, go out!” Spy satellites, radar, surveillance cameras, subsurface seismic prospecting to find needed ground water or locate yet more new oil fields. You can name more. For good or for ill. I admit to being very fond of the Hubble Space Telescope that has allowed us to look back almost to the beginnings of the universe.
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, electron microscopes, robotized photo-equipped miniature probes, the tracking of subatomic particles — laying bare the workings of things too small to imagine. No doubt there are positive results (I have personally benefited from the many ways of looking into the unopened or minimally opened human body) but these “eyes” have also allowed us — with great Coyote-like enthusiasm and impatience — to create and distribute new chemicals & to manipulate genes and nano-particles before we’ve even begun to consider the possible consequences.
“Eyes, go out!”
The feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye talks about the Arrogant Eye — the disembodied eye of the intellect that has forgotten its context and interconnections. The Arrogant Eye considers only itself to be real, to be worthy of respect. Everything else exists for its benefit. It believes the observer is completely separate from the observed.
In Western culture, the Arrogant Eye has become dominant. What can we find that will satisfy our needs, increase our bank accounts, give us the illusion of control? “Eyes, go out!”
Largely as a result of human actions, Earth is now in the midst of major climate disruption and mass extinction. Both human and other-than-human lives are threatened by our choices, but the Arrogant Eye — whether out in space, in a laboratory, or up in a tree — has forgotten that the eye is itself a part of the body.
Fortunately, we can change our visions, our actions, our hearts.
The antidote to the Arrogant Eye is the Loving Eye, the eye situated within — not apart from — the world it sees. The Loving Eye knows that Earth’s others have needs and purposes of their own, inextricably enmeshed with but distinct from ours and as worthy of respect. (For further details, ask the deer who has been eating your prized flowers. Ask the silt piling up behind the dam or the violet blooming out of a crack in the sidewalk. Ask a volcano.)
Let’s remember the second part of the instructions: “Eyes, come back!” Let our eyes remember and feel at home in our bodies, aware of all the intertwined bodies and forces of Earth. Taste, see, smell, touch, listen…. Only then, firmly in our bodies, will we retain and nourish the Loving Eye needed if we are to use our seeings — far and near — wisely, compassionately.
What would it be like if we could approach our Earth-kin in a multi-sensory and respectful way? What would it be like if we realized the limits of the Arrogant Eye and came back —literally— to our bodies, to our senses?
“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love…is the discovery of reality.”
— Iris Murdoch
“Gratitude is most powerful as a response to the Earth because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back, to living in a way that the Earth will be grateful for us.”
— Robin Wall Kimmerer