In his autobiographical book, The Way to Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday, describes summer on the plain in Oklahoma where he spent his childhood: “Great green-and-yellow grasshoppers are everywhere in the tall grass, popping up like corn to sting the flesh, and tortoises crawl about on the red earth, going nowhere in the plenty of time.”
I loved that phrase, going nowhere in the plenty of time. It reminded me of my time in New Guinea with my mother. No running water or electricity, but plenty of bugs, plants, sweat, babies crying, dogs barking, men with shaved heads and men with long hair, women wearing only grass skirts or thin calico shifts. When I talk about this experience, people always ask, what did you do there?
We would sit, walk to another hamlet in the village, walk out to the road to wait for a truck which might or might not come, make flower leis, braid dry grasses, roast beetles and eat them, maybe play cat’s cradle. Some villagers went to their gardens to dig up taro root or yams – their gardens looked just like the rest of the forest. There might be coconuts to gather and a delicious pudding to make. Smoking, of course, (but I didn’t), rolling sticky black tobacco in pieces of old newspaper; and chewing betelnut (slightly hallucinogenic) — mixing it with a little mustard and powdered lime that would turn bright red when you spit the combination out after chewing (I did a little.)
Elder women swept the bare ground clear of leaf litter every morning and burned their collections in small fires. Younger women walked to a cave a mile away to bring back the day’s drinking water.
The women sometimes would sit on the ground with legs out straight, a board with carved patterns on their lap, scraping sharp shells over fresh banana leaves, pressing them into this board to make doba, their currency. Men might be working on a wood carving to sell in the main town to a tourist or at the Methodist mission. All of this was going nowhere in the plenty of time.
There were highlights of course. The night a man died and we entered the hut to see his body laid out over his daughters’ legs. The mourners wailed, and then when the crying lapsed, they told stories and laughed. They decorated him with bands of red and white paint. And on my last night (my mother was staying on), one of the big chiefs announced he would kill a chicken! The villagers were ecstatic – they knew that this meant he would kill a pig, and we would feast and dance. They never did explain just how they knew.
Life seemed more about just living, not about producing. It was the fabric of relationships that always needed tending. Relationships between lovers, husbands and wives, children, clans, mother’s brothers, brother’s sisters, uncles, and when there was a death — the real work began. Mourning took many forms and was done by many people. Some blackened their bodies for a year, someone carried the deceased’s purse, which held his lime stick and lime pot, others shaved their heads. All of these mourners would eventually need to be paid back in elaborate ceremonies acknowledging their gifts of mourning, paid back with large baskets of doba, those banana leaf bundles, (that I carried on my head in the photo from last week’s blog.)
N. Scott Momaday returned to Rainy Mountain after the death of his grandmother and recalls his experience of the life that went on all around her:
There were frequent prayer meetings, and great nocturnal feasts. When I was a child, I played with my cousins outside, where the lamplight fell upon the ground and the singing of the old people rose up around us and carried away into the darkness. There were lots of good things to eat, a lot of laughter and surprise. And afterwards, when the quiet returned, I lay down with my grandmother and could hear the frogs away by the river and feel the motion of air.
I think about our Western fixation with time, with spending it wisely, with being productive, and compare it to the importance of being together, nurturing relationships, doing everything in the plenty of time.
we watched the crows
in no hurry to ripen