Disrupt the story of the land

A road trip is full of possibility. With the flexibility of time to take one of those turn-offs, there’s a chance to see something with fresh eyes. At the beginning of July, a friend and I drove from Portland, Oregon to Reno, Nevada in the United States. It was new territory — volcanic territory — that pulled us up to a lookout and down into a cave. 
In the northeast corner of California, just west of Highway 139, the Timber Mountain Lookout beckoned us off the highway. Wendy (waving in the photo below) toured us around her summer home, a place to keep an eye on things and send out the alert when there are ‘smokes’ — the evidence of fire. 
Wendy has all she needs in her lookout. It is a wee home with all she needs to look after herself and keep an eye on the land.

She has a kitchen, a bed, maps, cameras and lenses. 
It is a place of solitude, the quiet and peaceful kind or the solitude that comes with proximity of a surrounding storm. It is a place where there are few human and many animal visitors, but contact with fellow humans is the point. Wendy and her fellow lookout colleagues are in contact with each other and the wider emergency response system. In that location she is alone, but she is part of a larger endeavour.  
We created these lookouts to keep ourselves safe from fire. We chose to make these structures, at sensible locations, and create a means for the people working in the lookouts to identify clearly the location of smokes for their emergency services colleagues to investigate and, if necessary, fight fire that threatens homes and/or livelihoods. 
The lookouts come with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust what they name is worthy of investigation. 
The lookout comes with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust that what they name is worthy of investigation. 
I wonder, who are the people on the lookout for us all in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages?
Who are the people on the lookout in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages? 
I took this question to our next stop, nearby lava tube caves and a visitor centre at the Lava Beds National Monument. This second pause in our road trip shone a light on a story dominant culture does not like to hear: we settlers arrived to colonize North America and kill or displace people already here. 
A cave, for me, is dark and unfamiliar terrain,  a world that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Unfamiliar to me, yet intimately familiar to the Modoc people who have left evidence of having lived here for 14,000 years. 
When European traders and settlers arrived in the early 1800s there was displacement and a change in the way of life. Then displacement turned into state-sponsored extermination and California’s state legislature funded of a campaign to kill Native people: state sponsored genocide. 
A standoff between the colonizers and the Modoc people (who resisted ill-treatment and displacement to reserves and wished to be reunited with their homeland) involved the Modoc vanishing into the caves they knew intimately. Outnumbered 10-1, over the winter of 1872-1873 (the Modoc War), their knowledge of the land allowed them to resist and survive. 
The Modoc, who know the story of the land most intimately — where to find water, where to find food, what makes good shelter, the stories of the land and sky that sustain life and a thriving culture — were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. The stewardship of the land changed dramatically.  
The Modoc were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. 
The colonizers began a process to reclaim the land for homesteading. Between 1908 and 1930 Tule Lake was drained and converted to farmland. By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders. A stunning map in the visitor center tells the tale. 
By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders.
The vast majority of the lake was converted to farmland. What remained of the waterbody was labeled “Tule Lake Restricted Sump”. 
Our settler/colonizer language is fascinating: 
  1. retrieve or recover (something previously lost, give, or paid); obtain the return of.
  2. bring (waste land or land formerly underwater)under cultivation.
Our language reveals what we thought of the land and the people who lived on it:
  1. The land is ours to take. 
  2. Indigenous use of the land is unproductive. 
  3. Settler use of the land is more productive.
  4. Indigenous people are not productive.
  5. Settler people are productive.
  6. Indigenous people are inferior. 
  7. Settler people are superior. 
We had our idea of what the land could be used for and, deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land.  We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland. 
Deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land. We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland.  
I feel a connection to the story of the Modoc because it helps me see my family land lineage more clearly. In similar fashion, colonizers declared land open for homesteaders in central Alberta and my Norwegian great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders. In another family branch, my grandparents took advantage of others having declared land was available for purchase on a lakeshore. They bought lake property to serve as a recreational property, along with many others, surrounding an Indian Reservation. And me, I own land in my city that was claimed for settlement of non-indigenous people. There are Indigenous people who feel the land my city — and “my” land — sits on was stolen. My family lineage, then and now, benefits from the land we assumed to be ours for the taking. 
And here I have a choice about how far to go into this cave, and I have at least two stories to choose from. 
I could choose to believe that since my people were stronger and superior, then no reparations are needed. It is a story in which there is no room for weakness, especially mine. There is no room to accept that my people before me did anything wrong. (Or if I do accept they did, there is nothing I have done wrong.) This is a story about winners and losers, and when you’re a winner you enjoy the spoils and when you’re a loser you have to buck up and take it. This is a story that takes me to the entrance of the cave and causes me little discomfort as I continue to reap the benefits of living in a system works to raise my people and put others down.
A different story will take me into the cave, where I am uncomfortable and in the dark, unsure how to make my way forward. It is the settler/colonizer story where I take intergenerational responsibility for the actions of my people, decades and centuries ago, that were taken from a place of superiority and power. It is a story where I accept that I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that continues to benefit from having taken land. I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that experiences unearned privilege because of my ancestors actions. I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
A part of this new story shows up in how we tell the story of the land we live on, whether the land of the Modoc, or the Plains Cree where I live. I grew up, and was trained as.a city planner, thinking about two things: 1) the geography and nature of the land (topography, water systems, plant life, geology, etc), and 2) the story of settlers on the land. I paid some attention to the Indigenous people who traverse these time horizons, but not an appropriate amount. Our pattern is to behave as though a group of people did not and does not exist. Further, we are conditioned to not take into consideration their existence. 
How we tell the story of the land is changing. The usual story I tell and hear, as a settler/colonizer, is the big natural story, and then the story of settling the land. We are conditioned to tell the story as though no one was here when we arrived. We tell the story as if there were no humans of worth here.
Yes, Medicine Lake is a volcano that has been active for over 500,000 years, with the last eruption 950 years ago. Yes the Oregon Trail and the Applegate Trail are significant stories of European “discovery” and settlement of western North America. Yes, the Lava Beds National Monument acknowledges, rather than hides, the story of the Modoc, but it is the stories of settler/colonizer triumph, the hardship, the hard work, the heroes, the defeated that thrive. And we avoid looking at the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely.
My friend and I went into one easy to travel (and lit!) cave. There are many more deeper, darker and challenging caves to look explore. As i write, I imagine myself in a place of solitude up on Wendy’s lookout on Timber Mountain. I learn some peaceful things about myself, and I also witness the disturbance of stormy weather within myself.
There is a series of caves I have only begun to explore as a settler/colonizer of North America:  
  1. I do not understand and acknowledge my people’s role in the story of displacement and genocide and North America’s Indigenous Peoples. 
  2. I do not fully understand the implications of my people’s arrival and settlement, that it involved a desire to explicitly to “kill” and “terminate” the Indians”.
  3. I continue to live in a story of superiority over Indigenous Peoples.
  4. As descendants of settlers and colonizers, I have benefited and received the privileges that come with their actions and a story of superiority.
  5. I do not fully understand or acknowledge the explicit and subtle ways this story of superiority runs in my life.
  6. I am conditioned to remain unconscious to the ways the story of superiority runs my life. 
  7. I am threatened by the “loss”  I perceive if I lessen my hold on what I own.
The story of the land we live on is not singular. The story I grew up with, the dominant story, conditions me and us to believe in a superior people. And this story works very hard to maintain its position of dominance. The way to erode the power of that story: make room for others stories of the land, and our relationships with the land. This makes room for disruption.

 This post first appeared in the Nest City News on July 24, 2019.

Self empowerment threatens

Self empowerment threatens the stories we have been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. Whether its myself I’m empowering, or watching another reach into their own empowerment, my life is changing. My choice:

  • be upset, feel threatened, find ways to thwart the coming change
  • be supportive, feel excitement, find ways to nuture the coming change

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing.

The choice is, in the end, about fighting or allowing. 

In my last post, Beware listening through stories, I describe two ways people showed up for me while I was going through a tough time. Simply put: they listened through their stories and grief and were unable to support me, or they put their stories aside and listened and encouraged me in my own story. The former was about fighting threats to their view of the world; the latter was about creating the conditions to help me find my way. (Both are reasonable responses, yet as the receiver, only the latter feels like love and care.)

At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January there was great talk of a wall. At that same time, I was making my own wall to protect myself in a difficult time. I needed to figure out what my boundaries were. Here’s what it looked like in my journal:

I came to the realization that I am not going to stop doing what I need to do to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. On my side of the wall, at the end of a 21 year marriage, it meant looking after myself in a whole new way. (I know, this begs description and this will come.) What it meant was self-empowerment.

I am not going to stop doing what I need to be doing to be me, to grow into who I am growing into. 

On the other side of the wall was upset. What came my way was advice, fury, sadness, directions, and explanations — and a need for explanation. I imagine what was brewing for many behind the scenes: confusion, envy, anger and grief. When I am low, however, support does not come in their reactions to my reality, despite their best intentions. Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall.

Others’ advice, fury, sadness, directions and need for me to explain what happened are about them and their journey, not me and mine. Hence: a wall. 

Travel through the wall is two-way. When fragile, I stay on my side and raise the ramparts for those stuck in their story and their projections, unable to support me when I need it. Those able to walk alongside me, to care for me and my story, come through. This is moment by moment boundary setting to ensure that when I feel fragile, my needs come first.

When I feel strong enough I travel through the wall into other people’s stories, to walk alongside them without my story. To support them in their own awareness and self empowerment. I do this when the following conditions are in place:

  1. I am open, able to release my story
  2. The other is self-aware, knows that their story is their story
  3. The other is open to exploring the tension they experience in their story, what is going on for them
  4. There is love, care and safety for us

I realize now that what I have made for myself is perhaps more of  a cocoon of sorts, than a wall. It’s a safe place where I become more me, to prepare to be more me out in the world. Inside the cocoon I am not necessarily alone; there are people who join me and support me in my journey. Those that are able to travel with me join me. I leave the cocoon more frequently now, I go back and forth, stronger and more able to leave the parts of my story behind – not forgotten – to join others in their journey.

It seems the cocoon is not a one-time place and time for transformation, but one I can carry with me and make for myself whenever I need it. It is the boundaries I set for myself and the interactions I have with people, and the discernment about when I am able to be with them in their story out in the world and my expectations of people I invite into my cocoon, my side of the wall. I imagined the wall as permeable and so too is the cocoon. In addition, the cocoon is not a one-time event; I conjure it when I need it because change is not a one-time event. (I like my friend Michael’s take on change: think of it not as a noun, but as a verb.)

We all have the same choice, whether the change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it. 

Self-empowerment is threatening to our sense of self and others’ sense of self. People will go to great lengths to keep us we were, and we will go to great lengths to keep them as they were. We all have the same choice, whether the coming change comes from within or without: resist our transformation or allow it.

As you become more you, what boundaries do you put in place to support your own empowerment?


Beware listening through stories

On February 3, 2017 my former partner and I shared parallel messages to let friends know what was happening in our personal lives:

This message let a wider circle of friends know what was happening in our internal worlds, but for most of my interactions with people, for months, when asked “how are you?” my answer was “good.” Sometimes I’d be more honest and say, “You know, I’m ok today. I have some stuff going on and I’m not at my best.” But the majority of time, the most people knew was that I was “good”, or “fine”. Just like them, I suspect, I gave the answer we all hope to hear, that all is well.

Here’s what I have learned: there is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them, or even briefly talking to them. It is irresponsible to think that we can.

There is no way any of us can possibly know what is going on for someone else by looking at them.

As I hunkered down to make sure I kept it together during a significant time of transition in my life, and made my way through the world, I realized that no one else knows what is going on for me. A handful of people got close and gave me the gift of love and support, but when I went out to get groceries or went to work, I did not have a sign on me telling others what was happening. Even if I did have that sign — 21 year marriage just ended — they would still have no idea what it meant for me. All they have is their story.

It is not possible for others to know my story and what it means to me. And this tells me that when I see others on the street, or in a workshop or at work, it is not possible for me to know  their story and what it means to them. I can not know by looking, and I can not know by hearing a wee piece of story either. All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. All I have is my story.

It is not possible for me to know their story and what it means to them… All I can know is the meaning I make of the story I tell myself. 

The tricky work of being in relationship with others is in recognizing that my reaction to what others do and say is my reaction. The stories I tell myself about them are my stories. To show up as my best self with them means I have to be aware of the stories I tell myself.

I have learned this because the stories others tell themselves about me are not my experience. Here are a few story pieces a handful of people have shared directly with me:

  • There must be a reason why! There must be someone to blame. Who made this happen?
  • You have lost so much! You are alone, without a partner. This is tragic.
  • You must be lonely.
  • You must not know what to feel, so I will tell you how you must be feeling.
  • You must not know what to do, so I will tell you what you need to know. Here’s how to handle money… here’s how to handle the separation agreement… here’s how to handle the kids.

These stories these dear people carry about my and my situation shape how they offer support to me. As they listen through their story, they act in ways that soothe them, not me. Despite good intentions, they are not supporting me at all. To me, what they say and do can feel disempowering; I sense a pre-supposition that I am broken, flawed, that something is now missing in my life that should be there, that I am incomplete. These stories that are not my own and have the power to deflate me — if I let them.

In contrast, a series of other stories have revealed themselves to me, that recognize and support my journey:

  • It took courage acknowledge the need to separate.
  • It took courage to enact the separation.
  • This is a time of transition, confusion and metamorphosis.
  • This is hard work and you are capable of handling this.
  • I am available to listen, with out judgement, and simply be with you.

This set of stories embodies an entirely different way of supporting me because they are listening for my story; they are not listening through their story. To support me, they put their story aside and make room for me. They trust that I am fully capable of living through a difficult time. When we spend time together, they give me space and room to figure out my next steps without inserting their agenda. If they are uncomfortable and upset about my new reality, they are able to put that aside and not let it run the show.

I have a new understanding about what it means to be heard and supported as we make our way through our lives. For me specifically it means this:

  1. I pay more attention to my own state and ability to be with others. If I am not able to listen for their story (and only able to listen through my story), I need to remove myself.
  2. I pay more attention to the quality of listening in others toward me. If they are only capable of listening through their story, and I am in need of support, I remove myself. If they are only capable of listening through their story and I am capable of listening for their story, I will stick around and be supportive.
  3. I choose to notice the stories I tell myself, check if they belong to me and if they are disempowering myself and/or others.


Who tells your story?

There is a thread in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton that goes like this:

Who lives, who dies

who tells your story?

It starts with George Washington counselling Hamilton, desperate for a command, to lead troops (Act I):

WASHINGTON: Let me tell you what I wish I’d known

When I was young and dreamed of glory.

You have no control.

WASHINGTON, COMPANY: Who lives who dies, who tells your story.

WASHINGTON: I know that we can win.

I know that greatness lies in you. 

But remember from here on in,


Eyes on you. Continue reading Who tells your story?

Donkey engine


While hiking last week on the West Coast Trail, on the western edge of Canada’s Vancouver Island, my brother and I came upon a derelict and abandoned donkey engine. We stopped to marvel at its existence at the edge of civilization.

Donkey engine beside the trail

Long before foreign sailing ships reached the coast 200 years ago, the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht lived on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Our trail map reports that as trade increased, “many sailing ships met a tragic fate navigating in these unfamiliar and hazardous waters. Sailors soon referred to this coastline as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’.”

One of the derelicts of the times is the donkey engine, which took part in the work to establish communication between villages and new lighthouses – a telegraph line that also became a trail for shipwreck victims and their rescuers.

So what does a donkey engine on a remote trail have to do with city making?

Think of it this way – when we need something to improve life for self and others, we organize for it. And in the process, we change the shape of the places that are involved. One the west coast, when the shore became a graveyard, people recognized that action needed to be taken. They took action, built lighthouses, a telegraph line and a trail. And they left a story behind.

The donkey engine, if nothing else, stands out as a physical marker of the trail’s original purpose. When its job was done, it was left where it stood.

Decades later, the purpose of the trail is different. The users of the trail are explorers of a different kind – not shipwreck victims and their rescuers now, but hikers exploring the beauty and challenge of the terrain. (And their rescue from time to time!)

The very purpose we build structure for – any part of a city – changes over time. And that is part of the city’s story too, only we see it in many more layers. We really do shape our landscape, and we also shape the stories we tell ourselves about our cities and the places we explore.

What is your favourite layer of story in your city? 


_____ _____ _____

This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

_____ _____ _____