The Bells Say "You Cannot Love the Nation If You Don't Love the Land"

07/04/2007 12:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

i thought they were
wind chimes
in the streets at night

They say they love our country, but you cannot love the nation if you don't love the land. If you desecrate the ground we walk upon you don't love the land. If you pursue your own interests and ignore the fate of the planet, you don't love the land. If you allow those who walked these lands before us to remain in poverty, you don't love the land.

with my young eyes
i looked to the east
and the distant ringing
of ghost ponies
rose from the ground

I have quoted from d. a. levy's poem "the bells of the Cherokee ponies" before. levy was a Beat-era poet from Cleveland. He went to San Francisco, the Beat epicenter, but returned to Cleveland. He had a sense of place. He was rooted in the American soil, in the soil under the streets and sidewalks of Cleveland. There he lived and there he died.

i looked to the east
seeking buddhas to
justify those bells
weeping in the darkness

Why quote an obscure and long-dead poet on the Fourth of July? Isn't this a time for brass bands and fireworks? Yes, it is. But somewhere in the rockets' red glare, long-dead ponies still run.

The Underground Horses
are rising

Utica NY was a gritty, dirty place to be born. It was so corrupt that Life Magazine named it "Sin City USA" when I was nine years old. We would watch the fireworks from a small park near our house. Railroad tracks ran through the park. I would look down those straight, rusted tracks as far as I could see - probably not even past the outskirts of town - and imagine I was seeing Nebraska, Indiana, and all the other places I had heard of and never seen.

Utica was in the Mohawk Valley, named for the tribe that once lived there. The Mohawks were not always a peaceful people - blood is in all of our histories - but they were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. The five nations of the confederacy had negotiated peace, developed a common currency, and created a Constitution before they ever came into contact with Europeans. We learned that in school.

We also learned that they lost their land. Did we ever dream in long-ago Utica that one day we might lose ours?

Cherokee, Delaware, Huron
we will return your land to you

We can still return the land to its rightful owners in a way - by recognizing its value, and by remembering its previous inhabitants. They are our ancestors now, too. We're joined forever by the common covenant of this land.

the young horses
will return your land to you
to purify the land
with their tears

Environmental standards have been "relaxed" (what a bucolic word for an act of violation!) all over this country. Our greed and consumption is threatening the very planet we depend on for survival. People are barely beginning to awaken to the urgency of our situation. This is being done by political and business leaders (is there a difference anymore?) who are already buying their retirement homes in Dubai.

d.a. levy is gone, but the Hopi elders are still here. So are Gary Snyder, Bill McKibben, Al Gore, and thousands of other "environmentalists" who fight for our very survival. So are the spiritual leaders who remind us of the interconnectedness of life. Does that sound New-Agey to you? It won't seventy-five years from now, if you're still around to feel the heat and observe the suffering.

The Underground Horses
are rising
to tell their fathers

"in the streets at night
the bells of Cherokee ponies
are weeping."

I'm going to a potluck today. There I'll talk with old friends and watch fireworks with my Godchildren. I'm just another American who loves his country and his Constitution. I'll be eating potato chips and watching the rockets with the crowds. But I'll try to remember that I'm standing on American land, native land, the same land our ancestors walked.

And I'll listen for the sound of bells.