A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Williston, N.D., for a conference on “extreme energy.” I’d been nervous about heading to Williston, the hype about the trucks, the danger and drugs. So, I stayed out of town, hid out in a Bible camp, nestled in a small indentation between rolling hills. There, I could only hear the sounds of wells breathing, feel the shake of fracking under my feet as bedrock was exploded and see the light from gas flares.

If I covered my ears, I could feel and see North Dakota, the gentle prairie of Mandan territory, that knows and remembers. It is a place of peaceful contentment; this quiet of the prairie, watching the horizon, the undulating flocks of birds as they move across the endless sky. If I laid my head on the ground and transcended the shaking of the earth, I could almost remember the village that likely would have been there, at least a resting place. I was content and in awe.

Center of a universe

On my last day, I went to find the heartland. Traveling on dirt roads, using the GPS system of an iPhone, I felt strangely amazed as we wandered. Our destination: Writing Rock State Historical Park.

After many turns and faith in GPS, there she was, or there they were: rocks carved by ancestors. Symbols of the world they knew, telling a story of a place. The two rocks are locked behind bars in a stone building. One rock, it is told, was moved, and lost its power of divination – the folly of some archaeologist. I do not know, but I sat in wonder.

Outside of the shelter, it was more amazing to see the horizon encircle us – as far as the eye could see: rolling hills, a few cottonwoods, perhaps a creek, and a town or two. No flares, quiet, save for a gentle wind on the prairie. Really, the center of a universe.

In the time of those who carved those rocks, there were 50 million buffalo, 250 species of grass, eight feet of topsoil, and billions of passenger pigeons. A sky would darken in their migration, and the land would be covered, shaking, even more than the shake of explosions, perhaps today in the Bakken. The thunder of buffalo hooves would, it is said, be a song, resonating with the plants, the underground aquifers and the world; as if in the most beautiful dance one could make as a species. That was the world we knew once. That is the world I do not want to forget.

To forget what was

I learned a term: “ecological amnesia.” This is when you forget what was. I heard this term in Michigan, at a conference on wild rice. There, the manoomin or wild rice was scant, and scientists were seeking to remember where it might have been. They discussed with furrowed brows the time before the water was poisoned with PCBs and heavy metals, the time when the fish were edible. They talked about some great maple stands and then they realized that there was much forgotten: ecological amnesia. I do not want to forget the wonder of this world.

This past year, I heard sad stories. One man at an Enbridge pipeline hearing told about his village in Alaska, in Prudhoe Bay, a huge oil-producing zone. He said, “to get to the good meat you have to go through the badlands,” continuing, “the caribou lose their fur, and the meat is bad near the oil rigs.“ The hunt for caribou, their main food, is now difficult and sad. He talked about the ice that disappeared.

Another woman mourned the loss of Minnesota wild rice beds, another talked about trees that had been a family sugar bush for l00 years, now clear cut, under approval of a county forester. At least they remembered.

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Sacred places

Somehow, in a society driving in a frenzy to a place I am not sure we know, I fear we will forget it all. We are in such a hurry. We will forget that in the time of our great grandparents you could drink water from the lakes, fish were plentiful and maple trees were all around. We will forget the grasses of the plains, and the small farms today, abandoned. In forgetting, I am sure we will lose something more than the passenger pigeon. We will lose some of our humanity, and our spiritual being.

I do not want to live in a world where shopping malls are named after sacred places, now desecrated; where museums and zoos are full of life that was once vital. So it is, that I choose not to forget, and do not want to have ecological amnesia. To the contrary, I choose to live in faith in a world where mushrooms seemingly appear out of nowhere; the sturgeon have returned to the lakes on White Earth; and if you wait by the side of a country road in northern Minnesota, you can see buffalo wallow in a farmer’s field.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on Minnesota’s White Earth reservation.