“Cut to fortress”: the surreal rainbow brainfog

I started reading Harriet Books’ review of Tawahum Bige’s new book of poetry, Cut to Fortress:, and something clicked for me, but it felt more like whacking my funny bone. You know how that feels . . . excruciating for a split second. Here’s how it went:

I was reading:

Cut to Fortress, the debut collection by Tawahum Bige, a Łutselk’e Dene, Plains Cree poet, wrestles with topographies of colonization, both in Canada and within the speaker’s personal relationships, which often involves confronting and contradicting received knowledge from authority figures. In one poem, a writing professor considers colonization ‘too abstract’, so the speaker concretizes the idea:

Colonization is a two-man saw:
a signed-in-blood, written-in-English
contract atop a forest cut to stumps
called fortress . . . ”

Me: Oh my god, this hits me like I just submerged my whole head in a stream and opened my eyes under water. I raise my dripping head and look around and just for a second or two as my eyes / brain readjust to my surroundings, I see differently.

I see what someone else is feeling (!) and it snaps me to alertness and to a sense of anxious wonder, that I could have been so blind before. (Before when?) But already the blindness that I just snapped out of is returning, like a migraine of surreal colors across my field of vision.

Wait. Not so fast. What was that? Colonization is what?

“a two-man saw:
a signed-in-blood, written-in-English
contract atop a forest cut to stumps
called fortress . . .”

. . . “a two-man saw.”

OK, got that — two men sawing with a big two-handled blade, back and forth, so neither one can say, “it’s just me” or “it’s just you”. It’s the two of them sawing this last tree down. Sweating, stupified by their labor, anxious to finish, so they can call it a day.

Next line: . . . “a signed-in-blood, written in English / contract”. . . So, there is more to this. English is my native language. So, I’m implicated. Back in the poem . . . I am on one end of the saw, sawing.

I am revealed. I zoom in, and sure enough, one of those men is me! And I’m really exhausted. And I should be! Look at all the trees we have sawed down . . .an entire forest!

Now for the zinger! The forest is called “fortress”.

What does that mean?

Quick, before the old blindness of the surreal colors of the rainbow brainfog sets in — the clear-cut forest is called “fortress”.

Let’s push “pause”. This is a lot to process at once.

The clear-cut forest is our fortress??

1.a military stronghold, especially a strongly fortified town fit for a large garrison
2.a person or thing not susceptible to outside influence or disturbance.
“He had proved himself to be a fortress of moral rectitude.”

A stronghold guarded by a garrison, and / or a resolutely moral person.

As a Vermonter (26 year transplant) and an “environmentalist”, I have seen a lot of logging over the past few decades. Some of it is (so-called) “responsible” “forest management”. Some is just relentless removal of trees where only the spindly useless ones are left standing. But in this poem clear-cutting is a metaphor, the metaphor of two men, one of whom is you or me, in accordance with a contract in English, signed in blood (their own), cutting down the archetypal forest.

It’s a metaphor.

It’s not my forest or your forest or “that” forest but “the” forest. “Every” forest. And the contract is old! We have been doing this forever and (read the contract), we will continue doing it until there are no more forests.

That is colonization.

And the fortress is the stockade that we maintain, made out of trees stuck in the ground and pointed at the top, that defends the morality of the contract that authorizes us to keep sawing, and sawing , and sawing.

Our morality is our fortress. Our bloody contract is our (some say God-given) authority.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Are we colonizers or stewards?

The Biblical (Old Testament) reference to “stewards” has always bothered me. Here is why: In Genesis 15:2, the original Hebrew word for “steward” is `al bayith, which literally means “man over the house.” (Source) “During Biblical times, most notable households would have had a steward, so the term was familiar and not originally tied to spiritual matters.”

But what is the house? It’s the Earth. It’s Nature.

Maybe being stewards of Earth was once innocuous, closer to a metaphor. But we (English speaking loggers) haven’t really understood metaphor for hundreds of years when all of the clear-cutting was happening. We were too busy clear-cutting to realize that what we were clear-cutting was sacred. We were so caught up in our morality and our all-important stewardship that we didn’t notice that the world was bleeding out, that “household” we were stewarding had become a fortress, and that all the forests were falling under our bloody saw.

What was our spirituality?
How was God OK with this? (I mean your God.)

Shut up and “cut to fortress.”
Note: Sometimes when I am typing away on my computer these days, I am startled to see that my computer has changed a word, as if for it’s own amusement. Such as “forest” to “fortress”. Maybe chalk it up to hurrying, typing too mast (it just happened! “fast” became “mast”!), but I think there might be a little bit more to it. I’m not suggesting that Tawahum Bige was typing “Cut the forest” and his computer changed it to “Cut to fortress”, I’m just saying it’s possible. As I begin to experiment with language, and find myself beginning to relate to to my native English as a foreign language, I feel like something else is happening as I transition to writing almost exclusively on my computer and on the internet. I’m not in control of what I am writing any more. One thing I can honestly say though, is that the working drafts of all my (5) non-fiction books were written by hand in notebooks. I have all the notebooks to prove it. But my blog posts are written exclusively on the internet, and any notion that we are in control when we are on the internet is illusion. What I’m writing right now could disappear in an instant because I haven’t clicked on “Update”. (There, I just did.) But it could still go away. Sometimes the autonomy of the internet seems to favor us, right? So, it is kind of quantum, this virtual relationship. Just wait until our computers are quantum computers! We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!