Hungering Only For Meat: The Raspberry, The Gem, The Fat, The Trickster
Faithfully the green in my garden is waning and the dry and the brown are making their way. An astonishing thing to say is that I have raspberries in my yard in New York City, in Harlem, that come back cane after cane, thorn after thorn, year after year. I will have to cut them to the ground soon for their winter sleep but in the meanwhile when I go out and take a look at the state of things I can see the grey underbellies of the raspberry leaves and the empty caps of where I had plucked in days and weeks past. There are the ones I totally missed that are still attached that are far beyond raisins or fruit leather. Just dried clots of raspberry. Among this withering I am still surprised and find the plump, the ready, the perfect, the red, the dripping, the tender many-lobed raspberry. Will it make it to the container to be frozen or must that one little rarity must be eaten right there and then to be truly appreciated?
My fingers are stained for the love of these. My palms are marked with their berried blood.
Sometimes you find these little jewels. May you find their analogues in your corner of the world.
And sometimes the gems show up in books too. The other day I was reading Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art by Lewis Hyde out loud with my dear friend Kyle and we came across this Coyote story that was attributed to the Colville Indians.
The Colville Indians are a group of peoples all branched off the Columbia River in Eastern Washington and their formal name now is The Twelve Bands compose the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation: Chelan, Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce, Colville, Entiat, Lakes, Methow, Moses-Columbia, Nespelem, Okanogan, Palus, San Poil, Wenatchi.
How these indigenous people got the name Colville, clearly not an Indian name, is it’s own aching story of colonization that is worth knowing. Take a look… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colville_people
Here is how the Coyote story is told…
Coyote had made a new pair of horns for Old Buffalo Bull and in gratitude Buffalo gives Coyote a magic cow and a little advice:
“Never kill this cow, Coyote. When you are hungry, cut off a little of her fat with your flint knife. Rub ashes on the wound. The cut will heal. This way, you will have meat forever.”
Coyote promised this is what he would do. He took the buffalo cow with him back over the mountains. Whenever he was hungry he would cut away a little fat and then heal the wound with ashes as Buffalo Bull had said. But after a while he got tired of the fat. He wanted to taste the bone marrow and some fresh liver. By this time he had crossed the plans and was back in his own country.
“What Buffalo Bull said is only good over in his country,” Coyote said to himself. “I am chief here. Buffalo Bull’s words mean nothing. He will never know.”
Coyote took the young cow down to the edge of the creek. “You look a little sore-footed,” he told her. “Stay here and rest and feed for a while.”
Coyote killed her suddenly while she was feeding. When he pulled off her hide crows and magpies came. When Coyote tried to chase them off, more came. Even more came, until they had eaten all the meat.
Let’s go through this story a bit and make a fair attempt at the cultivation of a bit of mythical literacy.
Coyote is a classic Trickster figure and this kind of sad-sack failure of a plan that doesn’t work out as planned is pretty bog standard fare. These kinds of stories have been told around fires for a laugh for long time indeed but they are not only funny but also carriers of stowaway understandings for a culture. In this one there are some gems to be had in this tale in my estimation. First to note is the preference of fat for consumption rather than meat. This is likely more a metaphorical usage that illustrates the high regard that these peoples held fat because we know that they ate meat as well. But holding animal fat in high regard is of interest to those of us who use that same animal fat in our skincare regimen – as you do too!
Also worth noting that trickster figures are very often used as mediators between the divine realm and the human realm. They are very often carrying messages for people somehow. So a listener to this story would have been closely attending to hi-jinks of Coyote.
This whole story starts with a gift and the response is another gift of food. New horns? What could that mean? It is obvious that humans could never actually give a buffalo new horns but I’d say it is more likely that this reflects the astonishing business of beauty making with the practice of leaving gifts for the buffalo of tobacco or sacred herbs or semi-precious stones and sometimes textiles among Plains peoples. Making prayers not just the success of a particular hunt but prayers for the strength of the buffalo in general, for the strength of the herd. In this old understanding the speaking and gifting to the non-human world and praising it makes the animals more likely to come and to make the sacred exchange. There is a deep relational quality expressed in this small detail right at the beginning.
Then there is the noting of the use of ash to heal the cut wounds on the buffalo cow. Coyote uses ash on the incisions he made to eat the fat. That is a pretty easy detail to skip but it would have to come from actual usage to know and lo and behold the use of ash to stop bleeding and to heal wounds is widespread among indigenous people and has been demonstrated as being very effective at speeding healing of wounds in some scientific studies. The ash which remains after wood is burned contains variable amounts of potassium hydroxide and potassium carbonate. When you add water to this you get lye which is very alkali. So the ash mixing with the blood makes a small amount of lye which cleans the wound by killing bacteria there as well as being a vasodialator to staunch bleeding. Incidentally the solution of lye that results from wood ash soaked or boiled in water is to make soap from rendered fat which also cleans wounds. So this story points to a tradition of health and healing as much as a tradition of feeding.
But then there is this hunger for meat alone because Coyote “got tired of fat.” But the pursuit of meat alone causes Coyote to starve. So it might be that meat and fat go together. Take this less as a dietary recommendation per se and more as a ceremonial one. That there must be a place for the whole thing, all the parts. But this sole hunger for meat is the beginning of not only physical starvation but cultural hunger as well since the relationality ends with the killing of the gift. We are in the wake of that still.
It isn’t easy to get tallow. It isn’t easy to weave it not just into your diet but into your understanding of the relational web of reality and the consequences therein. Or possible any time soon. Or maybe even advisable. It is a big jump that needs plenty of tutelage before you get there. I’m not even close if you were thinking that I was some paragon.
But knowing that such a thing might well be so and be worthy to walk in the direction of that scent with a faithful nose and a well tutored ear. These traditions might have shown up perfectly on time.