Satan’s Kingdom Revisited

Powisett Peak on a November noon, looking west towards Worcester and Mt. Wachusett

My process of decolonization is ongoing. I’ll never get to the bottom. Every time I come home there’s something new.

The thing I didn’t acknowledge or accept about the nature where I grew up, until this time, this Thanksgiving visit, until I went away, missed it and kept coming back, seeing the contrasts in more and more nuance: it’s a barren. Pine and oak barrens scraping out a living on top of a bedrock desert. The ecosystem anything but diverse. Red oak, white pine, lichens, blueberries, some native shrubs, and introduced species everywhere. The land I thought of as the forest primeval, the source of all nonhuman life and of my personal pseudopagan spiritual practice, the landscape that taught me to be in awe of nature: no colonizers wanted to farm it or live on it, no colonizers could farm it. It was swamps, thorns, boulders big as houses. They tried, while they were terraforming the rest of New England to look like old England, but they failed completely here, were appropriately embarrassed at themselves, and left and didn’t come back until their children’s children’s children started using the waterways to power cottage manufacturing in the early 19th century. I don’t know, but I imagine the poor Puritanical homesteaders taking possession of land they’d been assigned to work in God’s name, quickly realizing they’d been had. And they called it Satan’s Kingdom.

Eventually, industrialized progress enabled them, us, to drain and dam swamps, blast boulders, build quaint Cape Cod colonials with English lawns right in among them, according to an aesthetic based on an entirely other and irrelevant climate, from which to accumulate wealth and go on expanding that same aesthetic on a scale amounting to terraforming from that day to this. I showed up on the scene in the middle of that, and growing up, I watched the woods I’d imprinted on get smashed and replaced with mcmansions, I’m still watching it, there is no end to this process. And I thought myself oppressed, I thought, why are they doing this to me, shattering my world. It wasn’t my world.

The awful thing to contemplate is, when you do it with enough money, centuries old money, it’s beautiful. I drive from my mom’s house to my sisters’ and am boggled at the quaint picturesqueness, the timelessness, the occasional retired horse, the dam waterfall, the farm stand where fruit costs an arm and a leg, the insurmountable wall of wealth that constitutes the lifestyle rolling by. And it is this wealth, in combination with all those forbidding boulders, that makes it possible for land like the desert of crags recently rechristened Sen Ki, “Land of Stone” in Wampanoag, to remain unbulldozed, unterraformed.

SE Michigan, where I live now—the place that enables me to see the contrast—is an unrelenting grid of concrete disregard for anything inhuman. Soft, flat, fertile soil, nothing to be bulldozed to make way for low-rent human habitation and enterprise but trees, which can be sold. And by the time that was happening, the East Coast old money was already established, could not be challenged or dethroned. The flabbergasting art deco opulence of the wealth of Old Detroit is a reaction to that. There was no natural beauty left unpaved, so they–auto barons, rail barons, lumber barons–reinvented it, in an aesthetic that was a shadow of a shadow of the old world idyll.

And that aesthetic, and that ethic, is what we’ve got now, what we’ve got left. Solarpunk descends from art deco. Let’s remake beauty and functioning nature out of the shit left over from destroying it. But let’s see it clearly.

The concrete grid of southeast Michigan is ugly as shit compared to the granite-impregnated old money fake pastures of suburban Boston, but it has ten times the diversity of tree species alone.

November sunrise over Twin Pine Hill. Spoiler, there are more than two pines. Wish I knew or were qualified to assign an Indigenous name

Publisher vs Editor-in-Chief

I am the publisher of Reckoning, not the editor-in-chief. A couple things happened recently to make me want to emphasize that distinction and talk about why it’s important.

I used to be the editor! I’m really proud of those first two issues where I got to do that work. I found it incredibly rewarding. It’s such a different, richer, more creative and collaborative experience than merely reading submissions, which I’d done for a couple of other magazines beforehand. For writers who’ve established themselves a little, if you’re at all interested, I recommend it. It crystallized what I wanted out of my own writing. It showed me how to talk about writing with writers in ways no amount of workshopping had.

But it takes up a lot of writing time. And you burn out, or at least I did.

So I pulled back from that role, both to give myself a break and to give others the chance. Reckoning has been about community-building from the start, and working closely, creatively, with others is the best and most rewarding way I’ve found to do that. I’ve learned so much, individually, from editors Danika Dinsmore, Arkady Martine, Leah Bobet, Cécile Cristofari, Aïcha Martine Thiam, Gabriele Santiago, Priya Chand, Octavia Cade, and Tim Fab-Eme, as well as long-time staff and (I hope) future editors Giselle Leeb, Johannes Punkt, Catherine Rockwood and Andrew Kozma, and all our staff. They are each, individually, brilliant. I’ve gotten to know them as people, I’ve gotten to know their work, how they work, what they love in a piece of writing, what they love in the world. Through them, I’ve expanded my understanding of what environmental justice and climate writing can be, what activism looks like, how humans can be interconnected with the rest of the natural world, who gets to be responsible for bringing about all of the above, and why. (The essay I’ve got out in Solarpunk Magazine right now has a bit more about this.)

This was part of the original idea: learning, getting shown where I’ve been wrong. And there was one other thing: I wanted Reckoning taken out of my hands.

I didn’t even know what environmental justice was not so long before I started. Quickly, though, it became obvious: the voices we need to hear aren’t mine. Everybody’s heard plenty from people who look like me, from Thoreau and John Muir down to David Attenborough. The trouble is, practically every single person directly responsible for the world’s environmental injustice looks like me, too. It kind of undermines one’s credibility.

Back in 2015 I consulted a couple of indie publishers I trusted, asking for advice. They were all white men. One said to me, if you’re going to invite a bunch of strangers to take editorial control of something you created, you have to accept the possibility that they’ll take it away from you completely, make it into something you couldn’t have foreseen, didn’t intend, something you might not even like. And I thought, not without a little trepidation: that sounds amazing. That is exactly what I want. I’ve been trying to figure out how something like that would be possible ever since.

So why didn’t I seek marginalized folks to take on Reckoning right away, instead of waiting two whole issues? I did, actually, though not terribly exhaustively. She said no. She was way ahead of me, too busy completely altering her career path to teach environmental justice thought and writing at a university level. But when she turned me down, it made me realize I wasn’t ready to go asking other folks for help. I wasn’t exactly a nobody, I’d guest-edited one environmental issue of LCRW—but out from under the auspices of Small Beer, I didn’t have a track record. There was no reason for anyone to trust that I wasn’t out to exploit them, use their identity and their work as a mask for my lazy entitlement. And I didn’t have nearly enough money to offer anyone to make that worth their while.

This is why I ended up seeking editorial staff from the pool of people I’d published. They already had my money, they’d seen the product, they knew I was serious.

Reckoning’s first editorial staff came together, and they gelled. It was amazing to see: they were joking together, caring about each other, stepping up to support each other, and arguing fiercely about what the work should be.

Once it became obvious that it had worked, that these wonderful people—wiser, more talented, different from me, with things to say that the world needed to hear—had invested in the idea of Reckoning, in evolving and improving it and learning together, I saw how I could begin to pivot away from making creative decisions towards supporting them, helping to find more people like them. We’re still in that process. It’ll be awhile, yet. I’m still the voice of the editorial “we” on twitter, for example, though I’d love that to change. I’m still doing everything I can behind the scenes, up to and including a little editing as needed, and I’ll keep doing it as long as that’s needed. “I am where the buck stops,” I keep telling everybody who wants to join us, until it begins to feel like it’s losing it’s meaning.

It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say! All my own writing has been about this for years now: trying to figure out what I can add to the conversation, to the cause, without stepping in front of the people my kind have been stepping in front of since Columbus, to the massive detriment of every life on this planet except a tiny subset of our own. But I would in no way be able to undertake that effort in good faith if I didn’t have the Reckoning community, its editors, staff, contributors and readers, to teach me. And I want to give them credit. And all the room they need to do that.

Giving Julie C. Day’s series of charity anthologies its own imprint, Essential Dreams Press, of which Julie can be both publisher and editor-in-chief, is a step in this process. The Dreams series has been entirely Julie’s idea and her work from the start—it just happened to fit in with Reckoning’s mission well enough we saw a way we could support her in it, and she was kind and appreciative enough to want to give us credit for that support. But the credit really ought to be hers.

So I’m the publisher of Reckoning Press, not the editor-in-chief. Reckoning’s budget is still mostly my money. Maybe that’ll change? I hope so. I hope I’ll keep fading further into the background. Maybe, hopefully, others will take over the twitter, the layouts, the contracts, the budget. But I’m not trying to push those things off on anyone, because I think of them as the boring part, the work that isn’t fun or creative or transformative. I don’t mind doing those things as long as it’s needed, as long as we, Reckoning, can keep putting out beautiful, diverse, surprising, aggressively heterogeneous, mind-expanding, consensus-building creative writing and art on environmental justice.

The part I do want to keep doing—and I hope I can without getting in the way of the rest of it—is being part of the community.

Our Beloved Kin

Our Beloved Kin, by Lisa Brooks, is “a new history of King Philip’s War”, published in 2019. It’s an amazing book, deeply affecting for me, and I’m afraid I have to exult about it for awhile at anyone who will listen and that’s you.

King Philip’s War: that’s the name colonizers gave to the first of the many, many generational wars between colonizing English invaders and the Native peoples of what would become North America’s east coast. It’s the name I was taught about that conflict under, briefly, in school. I imagine kids outside Massachusetts don’t learn about it at all. But it interested me, growing up, because it was the only other war in the history books that took place on the land where I grew up, among the rocks and crags, the swamps and thickets I spent so much time in and tied my identity to as a kid.

What got me excited about this new history, 350 years after the fact, was that it was an attempt, a start, at a history of that conflict from an Indigenous perspective. It couldn’t be called a definitive Indigenous history, for all the same reasons I grew up thinking of the events it’s describing as King Philip’s War even though there never was any person calling himself King Philip, and the person the colonial historians assigned that name didn’t start the war, wasn’t responsible for prosecuting it, and didn’t finish it. Written by the victors and all that. Colonial historians, American historians, Western historians: they all have a tendency to assign figureheads, lone heroes, to represent massive complicated confluences of events for the sake of convenience and dumbing-down, thinking we can’t handle anything more complicated unless the subject is white men. Here in Detroit where I live now, Chief Pontiac wasn’t the organizer or the leader of Pontiac’s Rebellion, but it sure was convenient to the colonizing white supremacist narrative to make it seem so after he was assassinated by members of a rival Anishinaabe band.

Brooks is of Abenaki and Polish descent.

I’m a member of this organization, based in Massachusetts, called Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. That community is where I first learned about this book. Reading it is certainly part of the same undertaking everyone there is embarked upon, thankfully focused far beyond one token day of remembrance, of reorienting towards 500+ years of colonial history. Time was, an Italian American speaking ill of Columbus was fairly unheard-of. My grandfather lived during that time. My dad is still influenced by it. My sisters and I have come out the other side. Granted, we’re only half Italian. But the other half sure ain’t Indigenous. We’re a mix of immigrant and colonizer, like a lot of white Americans. But I want to feel like I’m getting out ahead of trying to reconcile that.

It turns out Our Beloved Kin answers an important question for me: now that they tore down the statue of Columbus that’s stood in the North End overlooking Boston Harbor ever since the year I was born, who do we replace it with?

Our Beloved Kin is a beautiful book, really painful to read in places, and full of gaps where record is lost or never existed because it would have been oral and then wasn’t. Lisa Brooks calls repeatedly for further scholarship into all of it, and the further I got in reading it the more plain the spaces became that scholarship could fill. I am woefully unqualified for any of it, but I want it, so here I call for it into the collective id.

When the Wampanoag and Narragansett families fleeing colonizers take refuge at Great Swamp in the winter of 1675, we see a little of what that feels like, the supplies they’ve laid by, the landscape, the fortifications. Early in the book, Brooks dramatizes a series of short scenes where we get actual personal perspective. And though I was confused and put off at first to see what reads as fiction in a historical work, they turn out to be my favorite parts.

Monoco and the protectors laid their trap, and waited among the trees and brush, their knowledge of the marshes and hill country around them their best asset. They heard the clop-clop-clop-clop of hooves long before the heavily clad, sweaty men came around the bend, plodding, their horses weary. Monoco caught Mattawamp’s eye, making a subtle sign, from behind a massive oak. Others hid among the branches of the tall pines, behind the moss-covered boulders, aside old stumps, among makeshift blinds in the brush, their legs hidden by tall ferns and in the marsh, behind old beaver dams and lodges, under cover of brush, their skin protected by a sheen of bear and hog grease. Breezes cooled them beneath the forest canopy as they awaited the approach of the troop.
Our Beloved Kin, p. 184

Later, they conveyed in their letters and stories that Wampanoag warriors “encased themselves in green boughs,” but while they were in the swamp, they believed the great trees and bushes had come to life with the gradual setting of the sun. Thorny tendrils of greenbrier grabbed at their ankles, disabling their knees, pulling them to the ground. Grapevines looped around their necks, halting their movement. As they lumbered on, their eyes “muffled with leaves,” their heads became “pinioned” in the “thick boughs of the trees”. They tripped over roots that “shackled” their feet. Branches seemed to move toward them. Raspberry brambles grabbed at their arms, piercing through fiber and breaking skin. Ensnared in a net of shadowy green, they could not discern shapes even a few feet before them. And, just as the animated swamp had them in her grasp, a shot sailed through the air from behind a tree and hit one of the privateers in the chest. He howled, staggering forward, ready for a fight, but no one appeared. A second shot flew from the trees in the opposite direction, hitting another, as the first fell to the ground. The men started shooting at the bushes, and another fell, by the hand of one of his own, then a young warrior fell to the ground. The younger soldiers ducked, screaming as the thorns scraped their faces. But they found themselves hugging the ground, terrified the plants were demons that would pull them into the bowels of the earth, even as they avoided shot sailing from the trees. They waited, listening to the deafening sound of crickets as they resumed their evening song.
Our Beloved Kin, p. 164

Englishmen getting lacerated by greenbrier and brambles as they vainly pursue Natives intimately familiar with the landscape: it relaxes muscles in me I didn’t know I was clenching. Even knowing those Natives and their descendants are doomed to eradication, enslavement, assimilation, that they were close enough to the land to let it be their ally and refuge brings tears to my eyes. Tears of relief, to know that someone, anyone, ever was that close to that place. Because almost every lens I’ve ever been encouraged to look through at those places has words like “undeveloped” and “opportunity” overlaid on it, and through that lens, in my own lifetime, I’ve seen crags dynamited, swamps drained, brambles bulldozed and replaced with parking lots, high-end condos and lawns.

I want more of the history of those original peoples from their perspective. I want to see the history through the eyes of someone who knows that ground—not in a close, location-specific tactical military sense, that doesn’t exist, that ground has changed, but in knowing the plants, the animals, the ecosystem, the Native human interactions and interconnections with it as well as all the systems, emotional, diplomatic, nurturing, that they’ve developed in concert with it. This isn’t impossible. Humans still possess this kind of intimacy with those ecosystems, while they last. Please, I need someone to jump on that possibility and show me.

Brooks demonstrates so adeptly how effective a respectful and restrained speculative rendering of lost history can be. But she’s interested in these ethnobotanical perspectives on survival in war only notionally, not practically. What she’s asking for, what I’m asking for, specifically, is for others with expertise other than hers to flesh out this vision. I don’t care that it’s speculative. I want to be able to imagine it. I need us to be able to imagine it, because humans can’t go on treating the land as raw material to be extracted and transformed into sterile, lifeless, massively wasteful and inefficient highrises worth more than anyone can afford to live in. Not if we expect to go on living. We need to rebuild a relationship with the land and with life that is mutually regenerative, based on respect.

Please, everyone, do more like this.

James Printer, Wawaus, a Nipmuc scholar, one of the first attendees of Harvard, was also among the few people trained to operate one of the first printing presses in the New World. He typeset the Wampanoag Bible, the most substantial representation of the Wampanoag language ever printed, a copy of which I’ve visited, housed at the Peabody Museum in Cambrige, and which was instrumental in Jessie Little Doe Baird’s reconstruction of Wampanoag language starting in the 1990s. He worked as a Christian evangelist and distributor of colonial propaganda in the “Praying Towns” around Boston. Later, as a result of the Massachusetts colonists’ relentless campain of deception and betrayal against his people, he rebelled and joined the Native resistance early in the war. He and his family were taken hostage by the colonists, held in starvation conditions on Deer Island in Boston Harbor (now a sewage treatment plant) through the frigid winter of 1675 and beyond. His family’s safety and survival were used as leverage to force him to turn spy and traitor to his people. He did what he could to protect and save them, though many were massacred, hanged or sold into slavery. He survived. After the war, he went back to work as a typesetter, and among the books he produced was Mary Rowlandson’s popular narrative of her captivity by the Wampanoag resistance, which Lisa Brooks draws from extensively for its rare firsthand, if massively prejudiced, depiction of Native family custom, hospitality and diplomacy. Brooks makes of Printer such a complex figure, of incredible patience and capacity to endure suffering.

Black Lives Matter protestors beheaded the statue of Columbus in the traditionally Italian North End of Boston in 2020, and it has subsequently been moved to the grounds of some Italian American heritage society nearby. No statue has yet been chosen to replace it.

Fuck Columbus. He never set foot in Boston. Italian Americans don’t need him. We should be looking forward, not back, the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did when they came here. For me, that means figuring how to take ownership of all this place’s complex, brutal, revolutionary, redemptive, contradictory history and go forward and make something new of it, build new connections and institutions that will redeem that past.

I think the new statue in that place of honor should be of James Printer. I can’t think of anyone who better represents where Boston has been and the colossal work that desperately needs to be done. I don’t care if nobody knows what he looks like. Just let us imagine him. Put a book and a composing stick in his hands.