At a discussion of Hollywood and hegemony, my friend Yolanda Carrington referred to the United States as a settler nation. I thought: South Africa. I thought: Little House on the Prairie. I thought: our houses with their plumbing and heating and cooling sucking the green out of the land. I thought: Judy Collins singing, we’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot. In the past I have not called myself a colonist or a settler, but my friend’s designation rang true.

This truth feels truest in the realm of power and culture, but it’s more manageable for the moment to think about “settling” a geography. An example from my life comes to mind. For a few years, Vicki and I had a house in Chincoteague, Virginia, near the Atlantic Ocean. As I wrote that sentence, I heard an echo but could not at first place it, but now I have. It is uncomfortably apt. It comes from Isak Dineson’s colonial memoir Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…,” a book brimming with settler arrogance.

The house at Chincoteague was narrow and high shouldered, a “waterman’s cottage.” Beside its sagging fence three trees twined as one — a catalpa (native to the Americas), a crape myrtle (exotic, some say from China) and one unnamed. My favorite bedroom of my entire life was on the second floor in that hundred year old house. It had tall, tall windows. When I lay down there for an afternoon nap, the vista at my side was a deep, wide comforter of blue sky. If I climbed the narrow stairs to the attic, I stood in a hand-hewn space defined by dark oak ribs. The hot sun, like the fire in a church censor, released the perfume of the old wood. Tilting my head back to look up at the peaked ceiling was like standing on my head inside a ship sailing into the sky.

The thing about that house is that we bought it and eventually we sold it. The day I found it I dipped my hand in the salt of the nearby ocean and said to my mother, who had loved the ocean but had been dead for several decades, We have a place at the beach. Vicki and I took good care of it — putting in new windows, painting, replacing a damaged floor, having moldy sagging sheetrock torn out and replaced, adding baseboard heaters. And we used it almost year round. Several summers I came close to living there, writing in the second bedroom, swimming in the ocean, walking on the beach, spotting osprey and pelicans and dolphins and loons. Every once in a while we’d see the wild ponies and Vicki claims one kissed her once. My friend Colleen snorkled in the bay shallows, slipping among the eel grass and floating above an enormous skate.

And yet. Even if I do not entirely accept that property is theft, even if I might prefer the idea that property is on loan, I was a settler on Chincoteague, an island whose name comes from an indigenous language, possibly Occahancock or Accomack Algonguin. Vicki and I bought from the middle-aged children of a Chincoteague-born couple who had moved away from the island for work, returned to the island at retirement, and had either died or grown terminally ill in the house. The sick bed was in the living room when we bought it.

European settlement of Chincoteague was spurred when English settlers from Jamestown bought the island. With them came some slaves of African lineage. The mysteriouss and wild, but not entirely wild, ponies, had already arrived to settle Assateague, the adjoining barrier island. Before ponies and other settlers, at least in summer the land was hunted and fished and known to indigenous peoples. Our settler myths have described these original people as childlike and unworldly in their concepts of land and our relation to it. For instance a website about Chincoteague says: Native peoples “…were generally generous, trusting people who had no idea of land possession or selling land as they believed only the creator could own land and often they welcomed European settlers not knowing they would be dispossessed of the lands they loved by aggressive colonial settlement.”

And before the native peoples and the rest of us who followed, there was the land, there was the sea, there was the vast blue sky. There were their creatures.

 

Catalpa in Bloom

 

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