They were dreamers with guns and the prerogative to kill dark-skinned natives whose land seemed an answer to their prayers. Fleeing poverty and persecution, my northern European ancestors immigrated to this country desperate for a better life. One, a Quaker, invested in the slave trade. At least one joined the Ku Klux Klan. Even the abolitionist John Brown, also one of our people, resorted to killing in righteous indignation. Others fought against slavery in the Civil War and against the British in the Revolutionary War—the “good” wars.
Their legacy of fear and violence flowed in my mother’s blood. On our Midwest farm, she slept with a gun under her pillow and a shotgun by her side. I could tell when she smelled danger by the way her body spoke. Her spine straightened. Eyes narrowed. Ears perked. Arms stiffened. I felt her tension in my belly. Eventually that tension became my own.
By the time I was seven years old, I’d learned that bankers were greedy men just waiting to take our farm in foreclosure and that strangers might be thieves, escaped convicts, or kidnappers. I fell asleep every night hearing the voice of Walter Cronkite deliver the evening news, his tone of serious danger worming its way into me over and over: Kennedy assassinated. Nuclear warheads. Race riots. Danger seemed to lurk around every corner, even in our little country church when the pianist pounded the keys furiously as we sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and other songs that rattled my nerves.
I preferred the world that called to me from a sun-dappled corn field. Hidden beneath towering stalks and purple corn silk, I wandered in ease and awe. Sandwiched between the earth and a canopy of blue sky, I felt safe and whole, connected to something holy for which I had no name. There, the wind sang and the earth spoke. Deep down I knew that place was my sanctuary.
I loved that farm yet the greater world beckoned. After college I moved to the Northwest and built a life that revolved around cross-cultural relationships and a career in mental health. When my sister and I inherited what remained of the family farm she wanted it sold. But I was torn. Who was I without the ground that had shaped me? Finally I agreed, but I sensed there was unfinished business between that land and me.
I knew I had to travel the two thousand miles to say good-bye to the Midwest land that cradled the bones of my family and ancestors. At last I stood gazing upon the farm where I’d been raised from infancy to adolescence. I was a woman nearly sixty years old. Wispy white clouds separated flat ground from blue sky. As yellow finches floated by on the hot, sticky breeze, a shiver of fear suddenly ran through me. It was the same fear that had filled the veins of my 1950s childhood.
I touched the bark of a familiar old hickory tree to steady myself and rested my eyes on the earth. It was a landscape of two quilt pieces: forty-seven acres the new owner had planted with soy beans and a ten-acre forest of deciduous trees. Though fifty years had passed since I’d lived there, the land remained wrapped around me as if it was my skin.
Filled with loss and feelings too deep to name, I knew I must move forward. Intent on reaching the woods, I set off between rows of beans. Soon, it dawned on me that I was following the same path walked by the Mexican migrant workers who had for years weeded our fields with long-handled hoes. I thought about the unspoken rules that had governed their behavior: Stay out of a farmer’s yard. Don’t speak to his children. Bring your own water. Don’t ask to use the bathroom. They did not cross those boundaries.
Unconsciously I had absorbed the attitudes behind the rules: Brown-skinned strangers were not to be trusted. Still, I’d felt drawn to them. Contrary to my shy and wary self, I played on the junk pile behind our garage so I could hear their conversations in Spanish as they dug milkweeds and dandelions. Though unable to decipher the meaning, I was thrilled by the musical sound of the language. Their words sounded like soft drumrolls to me.
On Saturday nights the migrant families gathered in the churchyard across the road, and I watched, fascinated, from behind our living room curtains. If I could travel back in time, I’d encourage my younger self to cross the road, express my desire to know their hearts and stories, experience the thrill of communicating a simple hello in a language new to me. It sounds so easy now. But then, taking such a risk was inconceivable and would have invoked a terrible scolding from my parents. Those were lines you didn’t cross, lines that still exist. It would be many years before I’d realize I needed to know and love people from other backgrounds and cultures to feel connected to the world. Fear and unacknowledged history have kept us from having relationships we need with each other in the present.
When I finally reached the edge of the trees the underbrush appeared thick and brutal. I had forgotten that Michigan forests were dens of thistle, ticks, poison ivy, and mosquitos. The path I’d walked as a child with my grandmother in search of four-leaf clovers no longer existed. I stood in the liminal space between woods and cultivated area. Queen Anne’s lace flowered like summer snowflakes, yet I felt nauseated. Was it the heat? Then I remembered the reaction I’d had earlier that morning when, driving to the farm, I’d seen a billboard looming over the highway to promote the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. My stomach had churned with fright and confusion. Now, I tried to imagine who would buy military-style firearms and who those buyers planned to kill. Then I shuddered with the realization that guns had begun to creep into conversations even with my family, city dwellers who were not hunters but had suddenly felt compelled to purchase firearms and learn to shoot. I felt like a stranger in my own land,
How had I escaped this impulse? After all, I was no stranger to danger or violence. In my mid-twenties I’d had a terrifying encounter with a man who planned to attack me on a deserted street. He looked out of place and his behavior seemed odd. When I realized he was about to assault me, an inner mechanism I didn’t know existed took charge of me. Without stopping, changing my pace, or making a sound, I locked eyes with the pasty-white man, so close to me that I could smell his pungent odor. Hate flashed in his stone cold eyes. A single thought played in my mind over and over: You don’t want to hurt me. He cocked his arm, prepared to stuff a rag in my mouth to muffle my screams. Each moment passed as though it were a movie played in slow motion. My heart pounded against my chest. You don’t want to hurt me. To my astonishment, the steely willfulness in his eyes suddenly changed to startled confusion. With his arm still loaded and locked, he spit in my face but didn’t strike.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was learning to walk through the eye of a storm unarmed. I had found strength by responding to danger not with helplessness or aggression, but with humanity and intuition. That lesson served me well when, on another occasion, my life was threatened by an intruder who’d broken into my apartment.
Now, nearly swamped by despair, I planted my feet in the earth, stood still, and listened. An invisible community of crickets, grasshoppers, and bees raised their sounds together like thousands of monks chanting. The familiar orchestration of humming, buzzing, and clicking reminded me that I belonged. This was my sanctuary. Closing my eyes to listen deeper, I heard what sounded like the Earth’s pulse and heartbeat. Just as I was about to calm, I became aware of a different tone, an ominous undercurrent. Though I was alone, all around me voices whispered, Arm yourself! Startled, I froze.
Here on the land my family had claimed as their own, I’d heard the voices of those whose terror and shame still lay festering in fertile soil. I realized the legacy of fear and violence that had fueled my mother’s hypervigilance and my own anxiety was not ours alone. This epic was folded into the story of all U.S. citizens. No matter how or when we came to live here, we all are part of a nation conceived by a commitment to equality and slavery and attempted genocide. That legacy ricochets through our lives.
My head dropped in despair. My heart ached for the centuries of unnecessary pain and violence. I sighed, wishing I could distance myself from that heavy burden. But now it was mine. My beloved friend and mentor, an African American scholar, had been accused of plotting a home invasion when she knocked on a white woman’s door to ask for directions. Mass shootings had become so prevalent that my own nieces and nephews were being trained to stifle their screams and hide if a shooter appeared in their schools. I felt like a counselor rowing a leaky boat in a sea of trauma.
Suddenly, a hot wind rattled through the trees. A bird warbled. The land was pulling me back from despair. In that moment I understood these lands are haunted. The ghosts of those whose lives had been enmeshed with fear and violence, urging me to arm myself, were trying to protect me in the only way they’d known. But this corner of the earth that had raised me had a message of its own. The land was showing me my path in the healing of history and heart. Standing next to the forest of my childhood, I felt the pieces fall into place. I could finally see the confluence of my early connection to the earth and my life’s work—walking a path that didn’t require me to arm myself or live in terror. I was learning to face fear, not with guns or violence, but with compassion and an open heart. I’d been called to witness the emotional entanglements of past and present, and given the task of healing familial and ancestral wounds.
The pain of selling the farm had suddenly lost its power. A sense of healing and rebirth had replaced my sorrow. I knew in my bones the spirits of the land had released me. Sensing it was time to go, I retraced my path. As the sun bore down I understood that the seeds of Emerson Township had bloomed in me. From the moment of my birth I’d been imprinted by this patch of land. My spiritual connection to the earth and my deep love of farmland, simplicity, and quiet would ground me for life. I placed my palms together in awe.
I circled back to the hickory tree, paused, and looked up. Sliding west, the sun burned wicked hot, as my grandmother used to say. Dazzling refractions of white light blazed through a silhouette of leaves and branches like a guiding star. I closed my eyes as tears slipped gently down my face. Grace and hope washed over me.
Gail McCormick is a Seattle writer and psychotherapist with Midwestern roots and a global heart. Her work has appeared in The Timberline Review, and she has published a book, Living With Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Narratives of Coping. She is currently writing a memoir about a transformative kinship sparked to life by the nuclear explosion of Chernobyl with twin sisters and their extended family in the former Soviet Union.