The sweet waters of the Tennessee River, like so many other bodies of water, are under attack. Capitalistic corruption and pollution is an entire pandemic of it’s own. The waters and the land are being abused and misused and many of their spirits are unwell. Many are angry, many preparing to war. This particular body of water, the Sweet Tennessee River that runs through North Alabama, is kin to me & my maternal lineage. It is family. It is home.
My grandparents spent lots of time here. I have faint but fond memories of fishing with my granddaddy & him bringing home nets & coolers full of fish for my Auntie Stella to fry up. I remember the strong, putrid smell of fish, and their lifeless, gummy eyes staring at me (inducing my near 20 yearlong fear of fish, iykyk!) Weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, family reunions, homegoing celebrations- I've seen three generations of milestones at the park they now call "Rhodes Ferry Park." To us, it'll always be "Riverside Park." I've boated along these waters with lovers & friends, squealing & covering my eyes anytime a fish was caught and wondering if the giant catfish that the elders say could "swallow you whole," swam beneath us.
I had some of my first supernatural experiences here and it has always provided me with refuge when I needed to unplug, grieve, dance, conjure, escape, find my peace. It is the place I faced my fear of spirits, in the darkest hour, under a bloody moon— being called into the blackness of the forest along the backroads of the river; keenly aware of the multitude of eyes looking at me & calling me in; pretty damn scared if we being honest. Only when I had the courage to enter the forest was I lovingly embraced by spirits of former inhabitants, simbis & other creatures. That night I went from literally trembling into the darkness, to crying, laughing & dancing in its midst. It is truly a magical, spirited place.
This very river & surrounding forest have been terribly polluted by 3M, whose riverfront facility has been dumping highly toxic pfas in the water. These fluorinated chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they build up, and do not easily break down in nature or in the body. These pfas enter the major organs, build up, and cause a number of diseases and disorders. I read the reports and the water has been so contaminated that the land within a 9 mile radius is unsafe for growing food & eating eggs laid by chickens raised in the area. Meanwhile, the residents are uninformed of the damage and the dangers. All while the city and the county made a 98 MILLION dollar settlement with 3M, which absolved them of responsibility for their crimes against nature and humanity.
When I visited the river last year, she was… so sad, so angry. The wailing spirits, the deep rage within her waters, the absence of so many of the kindred beings I had grown fond of— it pressed upon my spirit heavily. When I learned of the 3M PFA scandal months later, it put so much more context to what I felt during my last two visits. A once healthy, healing body of water— now declared toxic to humans & wildlife alike? I feared the WORST, that the river was ruined. Permanently. In that moment I felt so damn powerless, I couldn’t step back on those river banks for over a year. In a sense, one might say I abandoned them. It was too much for me to bear— all that grief! Generations of grief. Ecosystems of grief. My ancestors who rode & fished & swam along the river, the Keepers of the Land & Water who inhabit the place, the creature spirits, all grieving. It was quite the feeling to process.
I thought that my return to the river would be a ceremony of grief. I expected to see and feel death, and I accepted that as I gathered my offerings and drove to "the spot." Instead, I found quite the opposite. I saw more life. I saw endurance. I saw that even while being actively attacked, even while grieving, these spirits have remained resilient! And in seeing that I saw how parallel Nature's experience has been to my own and to my people's. In prayer with Mama Wada (who showed up in the form of a water snake 🐍), she said, “we will outlive them,” and I felt just how strong these spirits actually are. They are not backing out and cowering. They are not laying down and dying. There is repair, there is renewal, there is recompense to come!
When I looked out onto the wide river, I saw the power in number, in reach, in expansiveness, in ancientness. The ability to outnumber, outsmart and move within your divine design with supernatural intelligence to ensure both survival and removal of whatever threatens homeostasis and symbiosis. That is what we are working with, and what The Creator has gifted us with. The Earth & Waters have some reckoning to do, and us along with them. These waters, these lands, they need allyship, prayer, ritual, love, justice, care. Just as we do. To be indigenous, to be sovereign, is to be OF the land and waters. It is quite literally to be descended from them. And that is exactly what we are.
When I felt the call back down to the river, I was afraid of what I’d find. But Sweet Mama had something to show me & my boys. First, the road we usually drive down to get to the river, was blocked by a fallen tree. I had to intuitively assess if that was a “turn around,” blockage or a “move through it” blockage. It was definitely a move through it, so I parked my car and for the FIRST TIME in my 9+ years of visiting this particular place, I WALKED the path to the riverbank.
Just beyond that tree block, I FOUND MY DEAR HIGH JOHN THE CONQUEROR! And no, not the Jalapa species that is commonly sold!!! The OG. That Frederick Douglas HJC! The very species our High John spirited for us. I immediately recognized it! And it was ALIVE & WELL! It was a clear message for me that victory is near! And that the enemy COULD NEVER! And that amongst the grief and anger, there is still joy, there is still beauty, there is still a way outta no way. There is still hope. The way I almost cried just standing there looking at that beautiful plantcestor. My children were excited too bc they’ve heard the stories, but never seen the living plant in the flesh! I did not know this species grew wild in the south like this & I am thrilled to learn it does!!!
We continued down the trail to the river and right at the river’s banks were soooo many butterflies! Like… sooooo many that we were taken aback by them. Bright, beautiful butterflies swarmed all around us. My sons were like… “butterflies don’t attack humans do they???” I ensured them that they were there with us, not against us. None of us had ever seen that many butterflies fluttering around like that. It was gorgeous.
As we approached the river, we saw Mama Wada in snake form, swimming up to the shore. We watched for a few moments & waved hello before she dipped down into the water.
I’d brought her things and we set up an altar, laid out offerings, said our prayers and declarations, and then enjoyed the beauty of the space before saying our goodbyes. We were gifted with the most beautiful clamshells. Of all the shells I’ve collected from that space, I’ve never seen that particular variety.
Through that whole experience I was deeply inspired and reminded why we MUST continue to love on, affirm and feed our nature spirits and our selves and each other no matter how discouraging this shit can be. We have to channel that deep grief and rage into power and do our part to protect and HEAL the land & waters & ourselves & each other. Those who claim/are claimed by any of nature’s spirits, those who claim/are claimed by a community, it is our duty to do this work. And it is absolutely imperative that we do it diligently as we prepare to reclaim and retain our sovereignty.
We WILL outlive and outlast capitalistic imperialism and all the systems created from its violence. We WILL survive and thrive! We WILL be fruitful and multiply these evil mfs out of existence. And that’s on Mama Earth & Everything she came from & everything that comes from her.
CALL TO ACTION: Please sign our petition to save the Tennessee River and demand repair! We want to make our voices heard & know there is power in numbers. It only takes a minute <3 ---->>>>> Sign The Petition
Stay blessed 🌊