Deborah A. Miranda
Deborah A. Miranda
I was born at UCLA Hospital, on Tongva land; not far from my father’s homelands of Carmel, Monterey and Santa Barbara, where our Esselen and Chumash ancestors had lived since time immemorial. Those places—some the most beautiful in the world—hadn’t met me yet. My mother’s people were from Nebraska, and before that, those French and English folks had traipsed from their landing in New York across America east to west, until they smacked up against the Pacific Ocean. None of those ancestral places knew me yet, either.
Yes, continents collided when my parents met in East L.A., dancing in a bar—my father, born on the Tuolumne Rancheria in 1927, my mother born in a small cottage in what was not, quite yet, Beverly Hills, 1935. I emerged inside the aftermath of that explosion, a world awash in both colonized and settler trauma, manifested in alcohol abuse and hair-trigger temperaments. For a few years after my birth, we lived in a series of Los Angeles apartments with faux-adobe walls; Tongva land, yes, but my feet rarely touched it. My mother and I walked on cement sidewalks and streets, caught a bus to go to the doctor or the grocery store; my father bussed or carpooled downtown to build skyscrapers. A child of L.A., the natural world happened for me in those small, sprinkler-fed green swatches of apartment complexes, where pigeons nested by the dozens in palm trees and small lizards scuttled across landscaped lava rock. Cockroaches popped out of a roll of socks; black widows lurked in damp bathrooms. Occasional trips to the beach meant crowds, sandbugs in my swimsuit, watching Daddy plunge under the waves and pop up like a seal in the distance. Sometimes, nature happened in the backyards of relatives where giant bushes with fuchsia blossoms my elderly relatives called “dancing ladies” were reverently tended, bougainvillea vines covered chain link fences, and orange trees loomed like lords.
Heaven was an occasional trip my grandparents' cabin in the Tehachapi mountains, where gophers, horny toads, rabbits, chipmunks, deer might be seen if I was quiet. We usually visited in the summer, and the scorching heat of the sun meant getting creative in my explorations. The mountains around my grandparent’s cabin were covered with low shrubs and the occasional manzanita tree; shade was rare. Once, I thought I’d solved the problem by camping out beneath the outside staircase; in the cool gray light, I had made up some game or other with the sand, twigs, and carved wooden animals. The bites—or stings?—of dozens of ants drove me back indoors and taught me some deep respect for such tiny creatures. Sometimes I’d go into my grandfather’s garage where he had a small shop, and watch him make “jewelry trees” from small manzanita branches. The actual trees dotted the mountainsides, their twisted, deep red branches and trunks reminding me of sinewy arms and legs. Sometimes, early in the morning, I accompanied my grandmother while she watered her tiny flower garden; green leaves bowed beneath the spray of water from a hose, and ruby-throated hummingbirds came to sip at the pink, white and purple blossoms of flowers never meant for the desert. At night, walking outside on the porch, every star in the universe sang a silvery lullaby, and the heated scent of chaparral and sage cleansed the day. This was Kitanemuk land, and I knew I was loved there.
But when I was three years old, the State of California sentenced my father to eight years in San Quentin. My mother suffered a breakdown and disappeared for a year; Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Pete took me into their home nearby. Their daughter Selena, a year younger but much more robust than me, bit my arm every time I touched one of her toys. That was the least of my worries. Eventually, my mother returned, temporarily rehabbed as per my aunt’s demands. With my mother’s new husband Tom driving, we headed north to western Washington State where he had a sister, and job prospects.
I was a shy transplant on Muckleshoot territory, but also the only Indian child (a halfbreed, at that) in the all-white trailer park, the only dark-skinned child in each of the four elementary schools I attended between first and third grade. I stayed a transplant as we continued to move from one trailer park to another, burning candles when there was no money to pay the electric bill, a step ahead of the landlord. In the summer, parents boosted their kids up on top of metal trailers with a hose to spray water over scorching roofs; few trees existed within the trailer park itself. In the long winters, endless rain filled potholes and soaked shoes on the way to the bus stop.
In one of those trailer parks, a man raped me. I was seven years old. Buddy was a classic pedophile: he befriended my mother and stepfather to get close to me, brought cartons of cigarettes and cases of beer to the trailer, candy in his pockets and generous attentions to neglected little girls. He was young, perhaps in his mid-twenties; I don’t remember much except a head of curly brown hair and invasive hands. I didn’t tell anyone, and not too long after this incident, we moved again—to another trailer. It could have been the same old thing all over again. It was not. My mother’s parents had loaned my mother money to make a down payment.
This trailer came with land.
And that is how I arrived—traumatized, fearful, neglected—on the 3.5 acres that would save me. Located on East Hill just above the wide Kent valley and the small town of the same name, the only structures on this land were an old single-wide trailer and a little red three-stall horse barn we used to joke was in better shape than the trailer. For a brief time in the 1870s, Kent had been famous for its hops and other agriculture; before that, countless ancestors of the Duwamish and Upper Puyallup tribes had flourished in this part of the state, enjoying the fruits of a dark, rich soil left behind by flooding rivers and a prehistoric mudflow from a volcano the Indians called Tahoma, which I grew up calling Mt. Rainier. When we moved there in 1968, the Indians lived on the Muckleshoot reservation the next town over (though I wouldn’t know that until I was 13 and my father returned; he’d head straight for those familiar faces). Surrounded by large tracts of other wooded properties and fallow farmland, tall pines populated our land, along with a small creek, open fields, and all the animals and insects therein. My home for the next ten years, this land offered a protection and healing I had never known before.
I was still a transplant, but now I had earth that succored my bare roots. And it had come at a crucial time.
Most of my childhood, I was a motherless child. It sounds like a cliché to say that the land mothered me during these roughest of years, but the truth will out. Inside our trailer, my mother smoked, drank, cried, fought with the men in her life, and made of herself a silent, isolated island. Even sober, she kept herself apart from me, buried in a book or simply going about her day without speaking more than necessary. Inside the trailer, strangers passed through in varying degrees of intoxication or high on drugs. One day, a man crawled from a bedroom into the living room, banging his head on the linoleum, over and over; I kept trying to slide a pillow under his head. I was no more than ten years old. It was all I could think of to do. The smell of weed, cigarettes, vomit, unwashed bodies, often permeated the trailer, and I slept with the small slat windows in my bedroom cranked open. My lungs protested the smoke all winter long, to the point that my doctor actually asked me, “Are you smoking, young lady?”—in the fifth grade, I had a chronic smoker’s cough. Inside the trailer, being inside my body brought me no pleasure.
So that first spring, the woods drew me away from our small trailer, that thick atmosphere of despair. I doubt my explorations took me more than a mile or two away in any direction, all forest with deer paths through the trees. But it wasn’t about distance; it was about my body’s deep dive into this place, and how this place received me. Our dogs taught me how to smell this, dig that, run here, trot there, taste this, lie in the sun, play in the creek’s cold shallows. If I had to pee, I moved off the trail and squatted. Hungry? I’d find berries, in season, or chew on sourweed to satisfy my mouth with lemony flavors. Never any hurry. Creek mud on stinging nettle blisters, my shirt a quick basket to carry stones for dam-making or berries for lunch. Was this freedom, or neglect? Was I adrift, or taken in? I never asked. I was too busy living.
Old cedar fence posts strung with barbed wire appeared occasionally in my ramblings; I didn’t think twice about climbing deftly in between the wires to get into the blackberry patches on nearby parcels of land, and my arms and legs bore more than a few scratches; but it was understood that berries were first-come, first-served. Sometimes, my mother joined me—we’d pick early in the mornings before the heat came up, when the spiderwebs were still bejeweled with dew and the mosquitoes still a little sleepy. Now, I learned something new about my mother: she knew how to make a terrific blackberry pie. And she taught me how to bathe the berries in the kitchen sink (pick out the over-ripe and hard red-green berries that snuck in, wash away the most obvious bugs), how to stir in sugar, simmer over a low heat, dip out a bit of the dark juice and mix it with cornstarch, then slowly stir it back into the pot. While that flowery, thorny, sweet mix cooled, my mother taught me how to mix the ingredients for a crust that would melt in our mouths (a little vinegar was her secret to smooth, elastic dough), how to fill the waiting pie tins, cover with a smooth sheet of dough, prick it with a fork in a starburst pattern; then, how to sit quietly, reading, as the purple, tangy scent of August filled our trailer. Later, we ate these slices of the land sitting at the small kitchen table together, took those berries into our mouths, and felt lit from within. I would never know a more sincere or lingering sacrament.
Our closest neighbor, old Mr. Franklin, gave me permission to roam his even older orchard, and the two fat hazelnut bushes near the top, too. Pretty soon I had my favorite trees staked out: the best eating-out-of-hand tree, the best snack tree for another neighbor’s horses. I braved the tall unmown grass with its leggy, surprising insect inhabitants, buzzing yellow-jackets and bees who came to feast on fallen fruit, and the occasional invasion of starlings. My mother made apple pies, too, filling the freezer my stepfather had bartered for and kept in the barn. Later in the fall, I visited the hazelnut trees tucked away in one corner and found them heavy with clusters of nuts in scratchy green husks flared like skirts. Squeezing close to the base, I learned that the ripe honey-colored nuts popped right out into my hand. Trial and error also taught me to find a nice flat rock—or a stray cinder block!—and fit another stone comfortably in my hand to strike the hard shell. The slightly sweet nutmeat crunched between my molars, rich and satisfying. My body relished the fat and protein—especially after my mother threw my step-father out, and we were on our own. The land was in my mother’s name.
She applied for food stamps and welfare; she applied for financial aid and began attending a local community college. We got by; just. Now she studied at the kitchen table after dinner, and all weekend long.
I remember the beautiful bright rust-red of a crumbling old-growth cedar nurse log, home to glossy black beetles, swirling with bright black and yellow millipedes; deer paths carpeted with fallen cedar and pine needles that softened my steps, perfumed the air, heated by sun into an incense that I inhaled like medicine, a smudge created by the earth and the day to bless me and protect me, to cleanse my body of loneliness and fear; the creek, a musical voice who murmured all spring and summer, froze into richly patterned layers in the winter. On her banks I found the tracks of raccoons, deer, porcupines, skunks; made twig and leaf boats, soaked legs scratched by thorns or blistered by nettles. I remember the clarity of that water, the spongy mosses that colonized the banks, the deeper pools where I shed my clothes, slid in like a salamander. In these woods, my body belonged to me.
No one ever formally explained anything to me about how to live where we lived. Yet I was not un-taught. I listened when adults talked about what was edible, what was not, and when to say, “I don’t know.” But the landscape, the weather, the geography—they, too, educated me about harvests of change and beauty. And maybe I have never put this into words before, but I often think now, "the land saved me.” I needed a green forest in which to hide; only a place without human beings could teach me how to become human. It occurs to me, writing this, that my mother needed this, too.
My mother—a voracious reader raising another voracious reader—took me to the small downtown Kent library once a week, where we arrived with paper grocery bags to carry home our loot. I found books that provided names for the riches surrounding me. Field guides, children’s encyclopedias. I started with birds, their songs the first thing I heard each morning. Crows I knew, along with robins and blue jays, but now woodpeckers were much more than a cartoon character, and now cedar waxwings sang in a towering grove of salmonberries, their olive bodies and bright red seals flitting among the fruit; chickadees, goldfinches like flying flames (though my mother insisted they were ‘wild canaries,’ and I liked that name better), hummingbirds, red-tailed hawks; a great-horned owl on the road one night, lifting over the windshield of our car; barn swallows over the fields at dusk, nuthatches, wrens, song sparrows, pine siskins, juncos, warblers, tanagers. The more names I could put to a creature, the richer my world became. I could not name my loneliness or the dysfunction around me—I didn’t have words for alcoholism, depression, trauma—but learning a language for the other beings around me filled my emptiness.
Oh, salmonberries: translucent orange lanterns, heavy and sweet in the rain. Lady ferns, sword ferns, deer ferns, salal with its exquisite white bells blushing pink. Skunk cabbage bursting out of creek mud like bright yellow heads, fireweed crowning ancient stumps, buttercups all leggy around the horse trough, pollen smearing my hands when I picked them. And wildflowers: carpets of pristine trilliums (mostly white, some mysteriously purple); bleeding hearts in sweeping colonies with their lacy leaves, twinflower, tiny wild strawberries, horsetail ferns like prehistoric remnants; wild roses and bindweed (my mother called these white trumpets by the prettier name ‘morning glory’).
Above me, trees: red cedar, vine maple, big leaf maple, alder, willow, fir, pines that swayed during winter storms like old grandmothers swishing their skirts and rained cones I’d find covering the edges of pastures. I saw deer stepping delicately through snow, held a raccoon stunned by an encounter with a car; the dogs came home one morning, muzzles studded with porcupine quills, requiring an expensive trip to the vet. I heard coyotes yip at night, but never saw one up close. Squirrels whistled and chittered from the tops of pine trees, the ground beneath littered with pinecone scales. One strange furry creature standing outside a burrow on the side of our dirt road required a teacher’s help to name: mountain beaver. I encountered and studied garter snakes, pond turtles, tree frogs, toads, ladybugs, grasshoppers, potato bugs, spit bugs; observed methodical banana slugs and their small gray or rust-colored relatives with delicate, alien tentacles.
Once, at the edge of a pasture, I came upon a castle of intricately pattered dried pine needles, raised up over a foot high by red and black ants. The number of pine needles required for this kind of construction boggled my mind. Crouching off to the side, I marveled at the energy and cooperation between these thousands of ants. But when I mentioned the castle to my mother’s boyfriend, Frank, he was not as impressed. Too close to the trailer, he said. He took a can of gasoline out to the cone-shaped nest, poured it over the anthill, and set it on fire.
I learned, again, when to keep my mouth shut.
Outside, in the woods, in the fields, along the dirt road, down by the creek, I was still wounded, still lonely. But here was respite. Here I found glimpses of an alternative to violence and loss. The summer sun and winter rains lavished themselves on my skin. So did mosquitoes and stinging nettles, blackberry thorns and pine sap. I waded in the creek, wallowed in the deeper hollows making up stories about fish and alligators; dried myself off walking through the underbrush. Beautiful greens of infinite variety surrounded me, and the scent of all those growing things cleansed my lungs, moistened my eyes, drenched my hair. My mother could not cherish me. Perhaps she was too un-mothered herself; it would be years before I began to understand her story. For now—by accident, by fortune, by mistake—I ended up in a place where the land mothered me with a distinctly un-human mothering. I was still a transplant; a seedling whose roots would eventually call me home to California, to those ancestral places where relatives—human and non-human—waited to welcome me, teach me, ask me for my talents.
But this land—oh, this land was home, too; it held me, fed me, nurtured my curiosity, educated me, loved me in its own ways. It could not actually save me; that task lay ahead of me, a long journey that I am still walking through. But thanks to this land, I learned how to love and give respect to my oldest relative of all.