You could say that my sons turned me into a children’s author at a time when my main objective was writing and publishing poetry. First of all, the traditional Abenaki and Iroquois stories I told them as bedtime stories (stories I’d learned not in my own childhood from family but from a wide range of Native elders in my adult years) ended up being my first book publications for young readers. Such books as Turkey Brother and The Wind Eagle. Secondly, once I was on that path a major aim became writing the kinds of books I wanted Jim and Jesse (and, later, my grandkids) to read, stories that I’d wished I’d been able to find when I was a young person. Books that presented history and Native cultures in an unbiased way (in terms of telling the truth and being deeply researched) and also provided the indigenous side of the story. Such books as Squanto’s Journey, The Winter People, and Code Talker.
I Brake for Toads.
That’s what the sticker on the back bumper of my car reads. And I do just that whenever I can. Not just for toads but frogs of all species and sizes. I slow down, even stop.
That is how we’d say it in the Abenaki Indian language of my ancestors. “Many frogs” is what that word means. And, boy, is it accurate on this wet July evening. They are springing out from the grassy roadside onto the shiny surface of a wet road that resembles black rivers.
From the first rains of April, the Frog Moon as my old people called it, on through the warm days of September, the Moon of Changing, you’ll see them risking their lives like this. Leaping, live drops of rain.
It makes me hate to travel major highways when it’s raining during those warm season months. At 65 miles an hour, I won’t be able to stop or swerve to avoid them without endangering lives in other speeding vehicles. And I know what I’ll see the next day when sun returns if I travel these same roads-- crows picking crushed amphibian remains from that dark surface of sacrifice to the gods of human travel.
Such warm and rainy nights have been all too common this year. Last week there were so many of those small green and brown leapers that it took me half an hour to travel the distance it normally would take only ten minutes to cover. Time well spent, though.
And as I slowed to avoid the spring-loaded leaps of the leopard frogs or stopped to remove the toads that too often persist in holding their ground in the middle of the road, I thought of Swift Eagle. I always do at such times.
Swifty, as his friends called him, was a Santo Domingo Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache elder who befriended me in the 70s, not long after I’d returned to the United States after three years of teaching in Africa. We traded visits back and forth between his home in Schroon Lake where he and his wife Chi-Chi worked at a tourist attraction called Frontier Town, his son Powhatan’s trailer in a park just up the road from us, and my own house in Greenfield Center, New York where I’d been raised by my grandparents.
I’d begun to have a little success as a writer then, was getting invitations to do poetry readings and performances. Swifty liked the songs and poems I was writing.
“Any time you want me to come along with you, Joe,” he would say, “you just give this little bird a call.”
So I did just that whenever I had a gig in our Adirondack Mountains region. It became a regular thing for the two of us. Once or twice a month I’d pick him up at his home. As we drove he’d tell me stories and when we performed together audiences loved the way he played his red cedar flute to accompany the poems I read, floating high lilting notes to lift my words.
One July day when I picked him up the sky was heavy with dark clouds.
“Looks like it’s going to pour,” I said as he climbed into the front seat.
“We will have to be careful,” he said. “Verrry careful, Joe.”
“Uh, yes,” I agreed, not quite sure what he meant.
But I found out soon after that rain began to come down. It hit so hard at first that it was as if a heavy gray veil had been dropped around us. It was only 6:00 P.M, but even with the headlights and the wipers on high, it was almost impossible to see. We were the only car on the road. No one else was crazy enough to drive in that sort of weather.
We were on Route 2, a road that runs through Blue Ridge to Newcomb where we were to pick up 28N. It’s the same corkscrewed-through-the-mountains route where Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt made his famous Adirondack wagon ride in 1901 after getting word that President McKinley was dying.
I was concerned that we were running late. The Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts in Blue Mountain Lake was more than an hour’s drive away and the rain was slowing us down. I always try to arrive early whenever I perform. It’s not fair to audiences and event organizers to keep them waiting.
So, when the rain let up and I could see clearly again, I pushed down on the gas.
“No,” Swifty said. “Slow up, Joe.”
But I did as he asked.
“Stop!” he said.
His voice was so urgent that I did so without a second’s hesitation. The car skidded a little as it came to a halt, but Swifty paid that no mind. He had the door open and was halfway out before it stopped sliding. He trotted around front, bent down, and stood up with a smile on his face. And a fat, unharmed toad in his hand.
“See,” he said.
Then he walked over to the road edge, bent down, carefully released it, came back to the car and climbed in.
“Okay, Joe,” he said. “We go.”
But not far. A hundred yards further and then—
This time it was not a toad, but a frog, one that didn’t let him pick it up, but was herded by his open hands to safety into the tall roadside grass.
I was moved. But I was also worried.
How long were we going to keep this up?
Two more stops. More amphibian rescue missions. Then three stops, four, five.
The rain had almost stopped, but our suicidal little wet-skinned friends had not. There were far too many more frogs and toads on the road ahead of us. They were clearly visible for a hundred yards ahead, easier to see as the mist rose from the road in swirling veils of white.
We were never going to get there.
“Swifty,” I said, as he was opening his door yet again, “We’ve got to be somewhere.”
He turned back toward me. “They have to be somewhere, too,” he said, his voice slow and patient. Then he smiled. “You will see. It will aa-aall be all right.”
From then on, it was both of us getting out each time we stopped. I don’t know how many small lives we saved that day. But for some reason my anxiety had left me by the time the clouds had vanished and there were no longer any little creatures to be seen on the blacktop. The road ahead of us was clear and though we were still this side of Newcomb and certain to be very, very late, there was a smile on my face as I drove.
Swifty was saying something.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” he said again.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Because we’re here,” he answered.
We were. Somehow we were already at the point where Routes 28N and 28 intersect. The lake was on our right, the Adirondack Center for the Arts a quarter mile further on our left. The last thing I’d noticed, back when I first heard Swifty say “Don’t worry, Joe,” we hadn’t even reached Long Lake. We’d been at least 20 miles away.
As I pulled into the parking lot behind the building I looked at my watch. We were ten minutes early. It didn’t make sense.
Swifty was saying something again. I looked over at him.
“You see, Joe,” he repeated, “I told you it would aa-aall be all right.”
“We’re on time,” I said.
Swift Eagle shook his head. “Joe,” he replied, “time doesn’t really exist.”
Did it happen that way? All I can say is that’s how I remember it.
And that I wrote a poem about that rainy journey of ours called “Birdfoot’s Grampa.” It appeared in a book of my own poems a few years later and has since been anthologized more than a hundred times and translated into over a dozen languages.
There’s no direct mention of time in that poem, but for me it works as a sort of time machine. Every time I read that poem and every time I’m driving through a warm rain, I’m back there again in my old car. Swift Eagle is by my side.
And we are stopping for every frog, every toad. We’re both wet. We’re both smiling. We’re both unworried about getting anywhere on time. What really exists, what truly counts, is not time, but life.
A Redwood Snag by Jacoby Creek
On the hill above Jacoby Creek,
a bulldozer and a front end loader
labored all through the morning,
back-up bells clanking louder
than the high stream’s flow.
By noon another fifty yards
of trees was clear-cut into logs,
though each trunk that dropped
paused for just a moment
before the gravity of its fall.
That afternoon I walked along
a winding trail where I found
the tracks of a young bear marked into grey mud,
ending at the base of the eighty-foot spire
of a redwood snag, its hollowed-out heart
hidden from any who could not climb or fly,
its black trunk feathered with new growth
An ancient Salish story tells
of two brothers who came to such a tree.
The one who climbed its height was turned
into a bear by what he touched there.
And I remember, as I came down,
my feet lost among feathery shoots
too stubborn to give in to saw or flame,
my clawed fingers digging into rough bark,
my eyes amazed by a sort of wisdom
I had not found in human structures
built without heart or roots.
Climbing the Mountain by Moonlight
The shape of the snake
whose eyes are wisdom
coalesces into the curve of a trail
that could not be seen
by the Day Star’s light
seems easy and open
and feet can be careless
treading on old stones.
The way now is a wash of silver,
a path of luminescence
to be followed step by step.
You rise as if shaman songs
carried your weight,
clouds lifting you to that place
left behind by Great Sun
who swims now through
the ocean under this earth
carrying the single glowing ember
that will glow into dawn
with the morning’s breath.
A morning that seems far away
from you as a memory of birth,
as your feet continue
to follow this path,
a razor’s edge
subtle as dreams or death.
Deer Pond 1990
After a night in the city jail
my son Jim whistled to the loon
that dives and surfaces near our boat.
It’s right, Jim said, after being set free
that we aren’t catching fish today.
I smiled back at him, remembering
how close the deer let him come
when we stopped on the logging road,
him walking slow in that old way
we were taught to return to sacred places
our old people lost when the timber barons
began to own land that owned itself before.
Spring rain came walking across the pond,
came washing away the smells of iron,
of concrete and urine and the feel
of steel wire mesh between fingers.
It always has been like this for us--
the way the old ways hold our hearts,
welcome our spirits back home.
Northern Lights at Midnight Near Chinook, Montana 1989
Two miles from Chinook,
just past Rock Creek,
two mule deer stood
eyes up toward a full moon
orange as a wild rose
above the sign marking the field
where Joseph’s people
fought their final battle.
Still half awake,
half in a dream,
I kept on driving
across that prairie
between sandstone hills,
my heart seeing dark
until a shadow
turned into Coyote
crossing the road.
Tail straight out
like a streak of light,
he leaped and there
I saw to the north
the luminescent pulsing streams
of the Dancers at the Edge of the Sky.
That stopped me and
I stepped outside,
gazing up at the place high
above all claimed land,
my heart filled again
by a voice of spirit,
its presence bright as sky
painted with flowing light.
One of the most prolific contemporary Native American writers, Joseph Bruchac has written more than one hundred books for readers of every age, including novels, poetry, and retellings of traditional indigenous narratives. In the late 1970s, frustrated with the marginalization of good Native writing, he and his wife, Carol, started the Greenfield Literary Review Center. Bruchac has helped innumerable Native writers get recognition and has published many important anthologies, including Returning the Gift. Bruchac is also highly sought after as a storyteller and musical performer. With his sons, James and Jesse, and his sister Margaret, he continues to work to sustain Abenaki literature, language, and culture.