August 1994

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Iroquois Stories


Thomas D. Cornell

Preface, Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI, Essay VII

Essay VI. Cracks in the Sky


Although the places mentioned in traditional Iroquois stories are not specifically identified, the stories do refer to general features which are still present—and in my sixth essay, entitled "Cracks in the Sky," I illustrate this relationship using the Iroquois creation story.

In repeated trips to the Southern Tier I was introducing myself to the region in which Grandma Cornell had grown up and lived her life. At first I explored the places that had figured in her stories. But then I began searching for the sites of stories quite unlike the ones she had told me—stories about the area's geological features, as well as stories about its Indian inhabitants.

Although I had expanded my search, I was still returning to the same general area, and one day the thought came to me that I might be able to draw its boundaries on my road map. This effort to define "Tom Territory" made me feel like a kid again. Then as now, I had ranged over the countryside—not to rule it or even to own it, but just for the pleasure that comes from learning the lay of the land.

Yet there were differences. On the one hand, I was getting around by car, taking pictures, and writing about my experiences—things I hadn't done as a child. On the other hand, I found it hard to spend my time as I had years before, fully immersed for hours on end.

These days I felt a strong need to explore the inner landscape of my psyche. But instead of scheduling session after session with an analyst, I was making trip after trip into "Tom Territory." Usually, I'd leave Rochester with a basic plan in mind. But I'd let the details unfold as I went along. That way, unexpected things tended to happen—as if I were allowing my interactions with a real tract of land to catalyze my quest for self.

In time, I began writing about the "Tom Territory" idea, and on one of our trips together I read Terry the essay I had drafted. Thinking aloud, I also worried about my tendency to see in the land what I wanted to see. Too often, I confessed, I responded more to my fantasies than to the realities around me.

At first Terry's response was low-keyed. "The essay sounds functional," she said, after I'd finished. "But I still want to deep-six the 'moreovers'"—a reference to our running discussion about how I peppered my sentences with transitional words and phrases (not only "moreover," but also "in addition," "indeed," "certainly," and so forth).

"I have a comment about fantasy," she went on. "That's where the magic comes from. Fantasy gives you access to magic, to feeling, to intuition. You don't have to worry about being concrete. The concrete is what you are comfortable with, But the magic stuff is the kernel. I see sparks of magic in your writing, but it's embedded in the infrastructure. I'm wanting more of the magic. I get the feeling that there's more there but that you don't quite trust it."

Then she returned to her earlier comment. "What I feel like when I hear the 'moreovers,'" she told me, "is that I'm being kept at a distance. The 'moreovers' have an emotionally damping effect."

So far, Terry had focused on my writing style. But as she continued, she shifted to our relationship—and in so doing she made reference to an Iroquois story I had told her on an earlier trip.

In my reading I had been impressed by William N. Fenton's observation (Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 75, 1962, p. 283), that the Iroquois have produced three great epics. The most recent is the story of Handsome Lake, whose religious visions in about the year 1800 helped the Iroquois to maintain their distinctive cultural identity despite the tidal wave of westward expansion washing over them. The second is the story of how the Iroquois Confederacy was formed, many centuries before, thereby putting an end to years of civil war. And the third—the oldest of all—is the story of how the world began.

It was this creation story that I had told Terry. I've read it and heard it in several versions. But its main features are as follows.

At first there had been only the Sky World, inhabited by sky-beings and filled with the light that shown from the blossoms of a great tree. One day the chief who lived near the tree dreamed that it should be uprooted. After the other sky-beings had guessed his dream and after the tree had been removed, the chief's pregnant wife seated herself at the edge of the hole—and then fell through (or was pushed), into the dark world below.

The water creatures who inhabited the lower reaches of this underworld saw Sky Woman as she fell. A group of water birds rose to catch her on their overlapping wings, and Turtle agreed to let her rest on his back. Then Muskrat dove into the watery deep and came up with mud, which—-when smeared on Turtle's back—expanded to become solid ground.

The story continued with accounts of how Sky Woman bore a daughter; how her daughter died giving birth to twin boys; and how the twins, one good-minded and the other evil-minded, filled the earth with living creatures—including humans.

What Terry mentioned as she talked in the car was the story of Sky Woman's fall.

"There's a voice inside you wanting to get out," she commented. "But the structure is so well entrenched, it doesn't have room. Not only is the structure well entrenched, it's opaque. It doesn't have a lot of cracks. It's not permeable. We're having to fight to open up cracks for our relationship. It's like that Indian story you told me: you need to pull up that tree and make a crack for things to fall through. Things do fall through. But they end up making a new world—so there's new solid ground."

While Terry was speaking, I sat as still as I could, not wanting to disturb the clear, deep flow of her words. How odd, I thought, to be hearing such wonderful things while hurtling down the four-lane, scarcely feeling the contours of the countryside through the wheels of the car.

By then we had reached the stretch of I-390, south of the Geneseo exit, where for several miles the highway drops steadily into the ancient valley of the Genesee—the valley that got blocked toward the end of the last Ice Age, forcing the river to carve out a new channel for itself (where Letchworth State Park is today).

Coming down that same stretch during the winter of 1990—not long after Grandma Cornell's death—I had lost control in the snow and spun round and round. Fortunately, my car stayed on the roadbed, and no other vehicles approached from behind. All I had to do (other than to collect my wits) was to restart my engine and get myself headed in the right direction again—though this time I drove more slowly than before.

Usually, however, the road poses no hazards, and I spend my time sizing up the view of the hill—the one with the village of Mount Morris along its side. On truly clear days it's almost as if I could count individual trees, while on days heavy with fog or haze the hill might not be visible at all. Sometimes I'll see a storm further up the valley, the hillside obscured by the falling rain or snow. At other times billowy clouds seem to extend the valley skyward. But one way or another the vista reveals the day's atmospheric conditions and reminds me where I stand in the cycle of the seasons.

Such thoughts about the seasons often lead me back to memories of the South, where Terry and I met and where we both grew up. Especially strong are my recollections of Southern springs. From the time the wild plums and redbuds start blooming (in early to mid-March) until the time the tulip poplars and pecans start blooming (in mid- to late May), Southern springs offer three months of lush, unstoppable growth.

But a full appreciation of Southern springs came to me only after I had left home. During my first year as a graduate student in Baltimore, with April well under way and still nothing much leafing out, I got so desperate I hopped a bus south—arriving in Knoxville in time to see the dogwoods at their height.

Viewed from that perspective, springs in Rochester feel like they last all of three weeks—though I should quickly add how much I like having four well-defined seasons. Springs here may not be long, but when the lilacs are blooming there can be no doubt about what time of the year it is. During summers we have days every bit as hot and humid as those in the South—just not as many. Fall colors, of course, are glorious.

And winters? Some people consider my claim of "four well-defined seasons" to be a little more than a diplomatic euphemism for "long, snowy winters," and before Terry moved from Tennessee I had to convince her that the snowfall and intense cold came and went in cycles—just like the heat and humidity of Southern summers. The real point, however, is that when winter arrives, everyone knows it. Like the other seasons, it doesn't hide its character.

On a day-to-day basis I often keep my eyes fairly close to ground level. During the winter I watch my footing, and during the spring I watch the trees leaf out. I gauge summer's pace by how fast the grass grows, and I gauge fall's pace by the foliage. But if I were ever to leave the area, I suspect it's the skies I'd miss most.

This isn't the "Big Sky" country of the Far West. Just as the hills in Western New York are quite modest by comparison to the Rockies, so our skies can't be described as "awesome." They are larger than life. But their scale is more "heroic" than "cosmic." As a result, they seem to invite human participation. Or, as I put it: "Rochester has skies you can live in."

My favorite are the ones chock full of clouds at various levels. High up, in full sunlight, they appear cottony white; down below, flint grey; and elsewhere, every hue in between. But looking around, you can also see hints of blue. Near the horizon, it comes through a light robin's-egg. Moving higher, it steadily deepens to azure—until overhead it's almost Union blue.

Combining such observations with Terry's comments reminds me that I tend to view human creations—including our organizations, our work, and even our personalities—as far too monolithic. Like cloudbanks, they may seem at first glance to fill the entire sky. Upon closer inspection, however, we can see bits of blue everywhere we look. In that same way, our civilized world is shot through and through with tiny chinks of color—and it's through such "cracks in the sky" that our futures open up and new worlds emerge.

© 1994, Thomas D. Cornell
Preface, Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI, Essay VII
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