Recently I had the opportunity to watch a short but very moving video about an elderly Dine woman named Pauline Whitesinger from Big Mountain, AZ, on the Navajo Nation. In it, she speaks about who she is, where she lives and what informs her life. Her nephew, Danny Blackgoat, translates her words, listening and speaking quietly. The interview is interspersed with scenes of the surrounding arid land, her garden plot and band of goats, the sun framed by white, billowing thunderheads.
Pauline is in her 70s. She lives all alone in a house smaller than the bathrooms found in many upscale homes. She has no electricity and no running water. No car. No telephone. And certainly no computer. Her nearest neighbors are miles away across scrub hillsides dotted with pinon, juniper and sage. She tends a small bunch of goats. Family members visit her from time to time, bringing water and food and checking on her. In material terms, her existence is impoverished.
Her words are spare, straightforward, unrehearsed. She tells who she is, what clan she is from, who her ancestors are. She talks about the land on which she has lived throughout her life—where she is from, quite literally. She pays homage to the sun that rises each day, to the plants that grow nearby—each of which she knows individually—and to the rain. She talks about living in a balance of respect with all the other life, animal and plant. She says she is grateful each day, for the beauty that surrounds her and to the life-giving forces that nourish and sustain her.
As I say, the video is not long, nor is it sophisticated in any way—an old woman talking to her nephew, with some scenic landscapes thrown in. And yet, it moved me in a powerful and indefinable way. Because, I think, despite her material poverty and her bare-bones way of life, she is so clearly connected to a place, to the continuum of history that she is part of, and to a way of living embraced comfortably in the rhythms of the earth. It made me ache with a sense of loss, or, perhaps more accurately, an appreciation for something I've never had. Moreover, my sense is that her words speak to something universally longed for, a level of connection and continuity that was once essential to the human condition.
In this election, no matter who you backed, the mantra was change. A timeless political chant, perhaps, but this time the sentiment felt pervasive and passionate, even a little desperate.
We want change from so many things that have gone wrong: war; questionable financial rescues of people who deserve jail terms more than golden parachutes; the cynicism of "Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies" initiatives; $15-billion quarterly earnings for a single company, Exxon-Mobil; schools held to standards but not given the budgets to achieve them. We want change from 50 million people without health coverage in the wealthiest nation on Earth—change from a government willing to hastily throw $700 billion at a shaky financial house of cards, but unwilling to even acknowledge the clear and growing distress of our planet.
Yes, we need change, most of us agree.
What worries me is the impression that a lot of the "change" sloganeering I've heard amounts to little more than tinkering with the existing structure—as if we just need a thorough tune-up and an oil change to get us back up and running.
Now, I don't have any illusions that I could live the way that Pauline Whitesinger lives. It isn't as if I could pick up a herd of goats and turn off the lights. I am too far removed from that sensibility on too many levels. And yet, her life holds the power it does because it points the way to something more fundamental than just re-jiggering "business-as-usual."
Pauline Whitesinger's simple statement reveals an abiding connection to her home, the land she is from. She lives within the grace of that landscape and is grateful each day for that grace. She acknowledges the civilization she is a member of, and the people she comes from. She respects the community that surrounds her—human, animal, plant, weather, spirit—and her actions are informed by that respect.
No, I don't advocate some ascetic return to nomadic herding, a hunting-and-gathering subsistence. But I advocate a return to respect. I advocate a return to gratitude. Not just one day a week and not just occasional lip service. I mean living every day in respect and gratitude—and then seeing where it might lead us.
Maybe that's the change we can all get behind.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Bozeman, Mont.