Category Archives: Life Lessons

To Become Such a People: Listening to Wolf

Wolf Gourd Drum by Dynva Todd

It’s all about territory and who lays claim to it. Moles dig tunnels underground and live generally solitary lives. If the tunnel of one mole breaks into the tunnel of another, a fight to the death ensues. As Marc Hamer wrote in his surprising memoir, How to Catch a Mole, “Fighting is in the nature of things with territories.”

That sentence got me thinking about habitat destruction and its role in the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world the last few months. What is an animal’s habitat if not a territory? Every species, and every community within each species, needs a territory, a place to call home. Looking under “W” in our World Book Encyclopedia, I read, “Conflicts over resources are the most basic and enduring causes of war. Resources include land, minerals, energy sources, and important geographical features. The world’s first wars probably were fought over resources.” That’s about as basic as you can get. When we violate the homes of our fellow creatures, they may not consciously go into battle with us, but the environmental and health consequences can be as dire as any war. After all, humans aren’t the only inhabitants of this planet, though we sometimes act like it.

Many of the worst viruses affecting humans are transmitted from bats, birds, and other animals. Epidemiology research shows that COVID-19, the source of our current contagion, with new fatalities every day, can be traced back to bats and possibly pangolins. We encroach on their environments or capture them for market, and thereby expose ourselves to new combinations of germs to which we have no immunity.

There is a story called Who Speaks for Wolf that has stayed with me for two decades now. In the face of our COVID-19 pandemic, it comes to mind once again.

Drawing by Frank Howell

The story begins as some people outgrow their living space and seek out a new one. In Paula Underwood’s way of sharing this oral history, she wrote, “Long ago Our People grew in number so that where we were was no longer enough.” Runners “were sent out from among us to seek a new place where the People might be who-they-were.” (I have added punctuation here and there to Paula’s words. She used very little.) A site was found that had space for the longhouses and for the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. After much discussion, it was decided to move the community to this site. 

As work began on the new site, a man called Wolf’s Brother returned to the village. “He asked about the New Place and said at once that we must choose another” because, “You have chosen the Center Place for a great community of Wolf.” Further, he warned, “I think that you will find that it is too small a place for both and that it will require more work then- than change would presently require.” This man was well known for understanding the ways of wolves and his words were respected but overruled, because the establishment of the new village had already begun. 

“The People closed their ears and would not reconsider,” Paula wrote. When all was prepared and the people moved in, the People, as Wolf’s Brother predicted, had to constantly contend with Wolf. It was a challenge to protect their children and their food. “They soon discovered that this required so much energy that there was little left for winter preparations.” After trying this and that, they came to the question of the final solution, which was to kill off the wolves.

This is an ongoing question for human beings right now. Do we need to take over every corner of Mother Earth? More species become extinct or endangered every day. Is this the kind of people we want to be? Is this the kind of world we want?

In the story, Paula put it this way. “They saw that it was possible to hunt down this Wolf People until they were no more.” Such a thought gave them pause. “They saw, too, that such a task would change the People: they would become Wolf Killers, a People who took life only to sustain their own, would become a People who took life rather than move a little. It did not seem to them that they wanted to become such a people.”

In hindsight, the People wished that Wolf’s Brother had been included in the decision-making from the beginning. They admitted, “To live here indeed requires more work now than change would have made necessary.” From that time on, they included a question in every discussion, before a decision was finalized, “Tell me now, my Brothers. Tell me now, my Sisters. Who Speaks for Wolf?” 

Wisdom comes from such challenges as these, when we take an honest look at the chain of cause and effect in which we have participated and make new decisions. We can broaden our perspectives and listen to a diversity of data, putting our heads together for better solutions.

Paula Underwood, enabler of learning

Paula Underwood preserved the tale taught to her by her father and wrote it down as one of Three Native American Learning Stories (2002, A Tribe of Two Press). Before Paula’s death in 2000, many people studied with her in the high country of New Mexico or among the redwoods of California. She was a mentor to me and reminded us, through her stories and aphorisms, to listen to all species, not just our own. She invited us to listen to trees and wind. And our own minds.

A Book, a Boy, and a Yew Tree

How did I not know about the inspired and inspiring 2011 book by Patrick Ness? Inuit people sometimes call a storyteller isumataq, “the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.” That is what the author, and thereby the monster in A Monster Calls, does. He tears open the known world, at the worst time in a boy’s life, to make room for the kind of truth that leads to wisdom. Illustrated by Jim Kay and based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, the book won both the Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal, and then was made into a movie. Which is what brought it to my attention: I caught the last half of the movie on HBO and was enchanted from my first glimpse of the yew tree “monster.” (I love trees! Also, taxotere, the medicine from yews, helped me overcome cancer.)

In this book, Conor O’Malley’s mother has cancer and it keeps getting worse. Conor is beside himself and it doesn’t help that he is often visited at seven minutes past midnight by the yew tree that’s come walking down the hill from the cemetery, bursting into his room uninvited to tell him tales.

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What he needs, Conor insists, is medicine to cure his mother, not stories. The monster tells him, “The yew is a healing tree. It is the form I most choose to walk in.” Yet the monster offers no clear answers to the boy, challenging him, “You still do not know why you called me, do you? You still do not know why I have come walking. It is not as if I do this every day, Conor O’Malley.”

“It wasn’t just to hear terrible stories that make no sense,” Conor says.

“Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth,” the monster says before departing in a gust of wind.

Without giving away the stories within the story, just know there are no easy answers here. The book, intended for “Age 12 and up,” has been lauded by many adults. What is life, at every stage, but a cycle of needing to hold on and having to let go? Between yew and me, I’m holding on tight. To life. This story, my story, and your stories are all part of the healing journey, to live life and to let go when the time comes.

When one’s world is torn open, one’s own truth can lead to wisdom and a heart that can be reconciled, if not consoled. In this book are words and pictures to tell the tale.

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Lily Terao: From Internment Camp to Military Intelligence

Lily Terao with twins Donald (my husband) and David

Lily with twins David and Donald (my husband) in Chicago, 1949

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law, Lily (or Yuriko) Terao. She was mugged by a purse-snatcher near her home in Los Angeles and died from her injuries November 8, 2005. As a nisei (second-generation) Japanese-American, Lily was born in Seattle in 1920 and returned to Japan many times in her life. In fact, she went to high school in Japan, then returned to the United States to work.

Due to the events of World War II, Lily was sent to the desolate Gila River internment camp in Arizona in 1942. She was imprisoned there merely for being Japanese and had to destroy her Japanese items, including her high school diploma. Anything Japanese was suspect at that time.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Lily was soon recruited to go to the University of Michigan and teach Japanese to intelligence officers and others. She saw her chance to get out of the crowded, makeshift camp and she took it.

Gila River barracks 1942

Gila River barracks 1942

“I took a loyalty test to get out of camp,” she said in an interview transcribed by our daughter, Stephanie. “Then I was sent to Michigan to help teach soldiers Japanese. The student soldiers would come [for one year] and we would speak nothing but Japanese to them. I mostly taught military intelligence.”

I once went to the University of Michigan and got a copy of a document written in 1943 by Marine Major Sherwood Moran, Intelligence Division. It revealed what Lily was working on back then at the University, along with revealing a stark contrast between Moran’s approach and our recent treatment of prisoners, such as at Guantanamo Bay.  Moran’s attitude toward interrogation, or “interviewing” as he called it, was more about befriending than brutality.

A June 2005 Atlantic Monthly article, “Truth Extraction,” by Stephen Budiansky explained the impact of Moran’s work, revealing that “abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.” For instance, James Corum, an expert on counterinsurgency warfare, noted that the cruelty of Abu Ghraib personnel was not a case of the ends justifying the means. “The torture of suspects did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted.”

Moran’s attitude was, “I am a human being talking to a human being.” And, he noticed time and again, that human being wants to tell his story. He believed that “those interrogators who tried the hardest to break down the morale of POWs were actually revealing their own fear.” Such “hard-boiled” tactics rarely yielded results.

What was effective during WWII was following Sherwood Moran’s suggestions, recruiting second-generation Japanese Americans, including Lily, and having them teach both language and culture to interrogators. The interrogators could then get to know the prisoners and help them open up to the point where they’d share important information.

Lily made friends with the other nisei women in Ann Arbor and enjoyed teaching the young men how to speak a new language. According to James Corum, “the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945.” For instance, it only took Marine interrogators 48 hours to obtain the complete Japanese battle plans in the Marianas in June of 1944. Perhaps some of them were Lily’s students.

Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao's service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.

Medal honoring Lily (Kobayashi) Terao’s service to Military Intelligence, received by her sons, David and Donald.

Mom in our backyard in Evanston, IL

Mom in our backyard in Evanston, IL