Towards the end of Braiding Sweetgrass, mother, biologist, and member of the Citizen Potawami Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer sets out at the end of winter to visit a forest area near her home that she considers hers not in name but in virtue of her love and care for it. On arriving, she discovers that the forest is no more, having been clear-cut by the owner. The wildflowers and the plants she has harvested over the years have sprouted up, but Kimmerer knows that without the forest cover they will be burned by the sun and their places taken by brambles.
Kimmerer is overcome by anger and despair, her feelings for the land she loves merging with her knowledge that not only her forest, but the earth itself is being treated as nothing more than a product by so many—without second thought for all that is lost.
Kimmerer tells us that some of her people call this greedy, destructive spirit Windigo. With a vast emptiness within itself, Windigo consumes whatever crosses its path in a desperate effort to assuage its hunger, but is never satisfied.
Kimmerer recalls that the people tell stories of a hero named Nanhabozho they summon to do battle with Windigo. Stories of a primal battle between light and darkness or good and evil are told in many cultures, but Kimmerer recognizes that this is not her story. She was taught the spirit of generous giving by wild strawberries: hers is a story of reciprocity. Nonetheless, she recognizes that she must confront the Windigo.
In what may or may not be a dream, she begins to collect and dry plants from the decimated forest. In what is surely a dream, she confronts the Windigo and offers him a potion that causes him to begin to vomit up all that he has devoured, “coins and coal slurry, clumps of sawdust from my woods, clots of tar sand, little birds.” Because he is never satisfied, he greedily drinks yet another cup, vomits again, and falls to the ground.
Kimmerer waits until he regains consciousness. Then she offers him a healing tea. She drinks some herself, recognizing that the Windigo is not the other, but has become part of all of us. When the healing tea calms the Windigo, she lies down beside him and begins to tell him the creation story of her people.
Reflecting on Kimmerer’s confrontation with the Windigo, I imagine:
- the purgative means: vote them out;
- the healing tea means: do not demonize the other;
- telling a story to the Windigo means: remind the other and ourselves of the what we love, not what we fear.
As I write, I am confronted by the Windigo sitting across me in a café neon in Pendamodi, Crete. Listening to the news on the television, he begins to sound off against every type of refugee, not one of whom, he announces, should set foot in Crete. Thinking about Kimmerer’s story, I ask myself: how I can confront the Windigo not in anger but in a way that will soothe his wounded soul?
I remind him that Greeks were once refugees from Asia Minor. He says that today’s refugees should stay home and fight their oppressors as the Cretans fought the Germans in World War II. I say, yes, but if bombs were being dropped on your home and your children were threatened, wouldn’t you flee? He insists that because he does not want any refugees in Crete, he will vote for the popular nationalists and fascists in the next election. I say only love, not hate will solve these problems. He insists that the neo-fascist party is not motivated by hate. I give up.
A few minutes later I begin to sneeze uncontrollably. The sun that was above us at midday has traveled to the other side of the café neon. My nose is bleeding. The man asks me if he can help. I say, yes, please close the door, it has gotten cold inside.
He closes the door, I thank him, and the spell is broken. He is no longer the Windigo. He may still vote for the neo-fascists, but for now he is simply the person sitting across from me. We speak about the weather.
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ