Writing The Search for Sunlei

Book II:  The Search for Sunlei

I have been working through the winter months on Book II:  The Search for Sunlei.  Those of you who have had the grit to put pen to paper to write a novel know firsthand that a storyline cannot be forced and recognize that to try to do so is a rookie mistake that never ends well.  Writing, for me anyway, is a process that is self-driven and internally regulated.  How that regulation works is an absolute mystery to me, but I have come to the conclusion that most of the real writing actually takes place away from the keyboard.  I don’t know how it happens, but the story seems to write itself according to a schedule of its own design.  Dialogue is magically written at night while you are sleeping, or while driving to work, or mowing the lawn.  Characters develop and come to life while washing the car or folding the laundry.  Storylines resolve unexpectedly while showering at 5:00 am or cleaning the workshop on a Saturday afternoon.  The point is, you can’t force it to happen.  It happens when it is ready to happen and not a moment sooner.  It’s a miraculous thing.

I don’t know how common this is, but I write the last chapter of the novel first and the writing journey is all about getting the main characters to that endpoint.   I wrote the final chapter of the Search for Sunlei shortly after completing the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby.  About seventy-five percent of Book II is complete, and once again Tyoga, Tes Qua and the cast of new characters I introduce have taken me on a wild ride of their own accord.  The end of the Tyoga Weathersby story will, I think, surprise readers, and leave many exclaiming out loud, “No!  Not that!”  But legends are meant to leave the audience scratching their heads searching for the meaning of the story.  And a good legend has a meaning that touches all in a way that is unique to their own experience.

I will be meeting with my editor soon, and I hope that she will agree with how I have ended this story.  But, even if she doesn’t agree with me, she is careful to point out that, “It’s your story – and no one can to tell you what is right or wrong.”  She is also quick to add that all she can do is tell me what she thinks will be commercially more successful.  But she understands and respects the fact that I don’t write for commercial success.  I write for the sheer joy of the process.  It is really HARD work, but I love every moment of it.

The ‘hard work’ part of the process brings me to the following point:  I would be doing a great disservice to my readers should I move forward without being comfortable with the amount of firsthand experience I have with the places I describe in The Search for Sunlei.  Part of the success of The Legend of Tyoga Weathersby is that I was able to bring the reader to all of the locations described in the book through my firsthand experience with the geography.  The feel of the morning fog descending into the gorge at the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahanock Rivers; sunrise on a rainy morning on top of Mt. Ragg; the view of the Shenandoah Valley from Carter’s Rock where all experiences that I brought to the reader because I lived them.  One of the main characters of in Book II makes a harrowing trek along the Mohawk Trail that ran from Albany to Rome, New York, roughly following today’s Route 90.  While I have spent some time in the Finger Lakes region and in the Adirondack Mountains, I want to spend more time traveling from Albany to Rome.  So my wife, Mary Ann and I are going to travel that route this summer and take the time to explore Schenectady, Schoharie Crossing near Amsterdam, Palatine Bridge, Fort Plain, Utica, Oriskany, and Fort Stanwix near Rome.  And this last stop will be the most exciting.

Oriskany and Fort Stanwix stand today near a sight that – in the 1730s – was one of the most important points along the Mohawk Trail called The Oneida Carrying Place.  The Oneida Carry, as it came to be known, played a pivotal role in migration, commerce and trade, settlement of the West, and in every war ever fought on American soil.  Here is a paragraph from Chapter 37, entitled The Oneida Carry:

The Carrying Place was an important intersection in colonial times because, except for the short portage over flat ground located there, a traveler could journey by water all the way from New York to Canada. The Oneida Carry would one day become one of the most strategically important intersections on the frontier as the world’s most powerful nations vied for control of the New World.   But in the early 1700s, it was nothing more than an unmarked footpath between two bodies of water.  

What a place it must have been.  A wild mixture of Native Americans, mountain men, entrepreneurs, carpet baggers, miners, speculators, settlers, school teachers and lawyers all mingling along the muddy, manure-filled lanes that ultimately became Oriskany.  So Mary Ann and I are going to travel the Mohawk Trail so that at each location I can sit quietly alone with a clutch of dirt in my hands and listen to the echoes of days long past.  Their voices live still in the whispers of the wind.   Their dreams linger on the banks of the Mohawk River and Bear Creek and their legacy flows through the veins of the Oneida and Cayuga and Chippewa.

So I will watch the sunset at Fort Frederick in Albany and experience the sunrise at The Carrying Place and endeavor to share what that feels like, smells like and sounds like with you.  Until then, if any of you out there have any information about the Oneida Carry, I sure would appreciate hearing from you.  In all of my research thus far I have been unable to come across a written description of what the area looked like in the early 1700s.  I am hoping that my stops at the libraries and historical societies in towns along Route 90 will reveal a source that contains a written description.  Until then, I welcome anything anyone can send to me to help me with this research.

Thanks for the help.  Talk to you again soon.

Native American Medicine

As a biologist, I have always been fascinated by the wondrous world of North American flora.  In college, I absolutely loved botany class and while others were banging their heads trying to distinguish their Acer rubrum (red maple) from their Ampelopsis arborea (pepper-vine) I was busy studying the secrets of photosynthesis and trying to understand the mysteries of the Calvin cycle and ATP (adenosine triphosphate).  My interest in botany took me to Jamaica in January of 1974 to study the plant life of the island with my professor for an entire month, and – believe it or not – I absolutely loved studying medicinal chemistry in graduate school.

I share this with you because I truly did a great deal of research about the medical practices of the Native Americans in the late 17th and early 18th centuries because I wanted to be as accurate as I could in those parts of the book that speak to the care of the injured and ill.  It was a difficult task because the term “Native American medicine” refers to the historical collection of information garnered over thousands of years and treatment modalities of many different North American tribes.  Unfortunately, much of what we know about the practices of these various peoples have been passed down strictly through oral traditions, a factor that makes documentation of its origin, and initial use a relative mystery.

What we do know is that much of their existing medicinal knowledge was in use when the Europeans first visited the North American continent more than 500 years ago. Some estimates suggest the first medical practices of the North American Indians occurred some 40,000 years ago.  Imagine the painstaking observations that had to take place over generations and generations of practitioners to hit upon a single plant extract that actually worked.  I still don’t understand how they did it – but they did.  

Who was the first person to figure out that the lowly willow tree contains salicin – acetylsalicylic acid – the active ingredient in today’s aspirin, and how did they ascertain that by making a tea from the dried extract of the bark they could lessen the pain of their injured comrades?  But more than the acute pain of wounds and injuries sustained in battle, they figured out that they could use this stuff for headaches (yes they even got them back in the 1600s) joint pain, and toothaches.  That is why to this day the willow tree is known by its nickname, “the toothache tree.”

The pharmaceutical industry of today grew out of the Native American’s use of the medical healing plants.  It may be a bit of a stretch to say that without the Sioux, Cheyenne, Choctaw and Cherokee there would be no Abbott, Bristol-Myers, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline – but you get the point.  Over 200 of today’s medical drugs have their origin in the Native American use of healing plant raw materials.

Here is just a partial list of some of the plants that were used by the Native Americans and how the medicines extracted from them were used to care for the ill and injured:

Black Cohosh: This plant has strong pain relieving and muscle relaxing properties that were used to treat a variety of ailments including joint pain, sore throats, menstrual cramps and it was used to relieve the pain of childbirth.  For this reason, it was also known on the frontier as “Squawroot”.  A powerful antispasmodic herb relieving or preventing spasms and muscle relaxes.

Boneset: Native Americans use this herb to relieve break-bone fever, caused by a strain of influenza. It was also used as an infusion to relieve snakebites and indigestion.

Echinachea: Used to treat toothaches, snake bites, and insect bites. It contains a natural antibiotic that makes it an effective antibacterial agent to fight infection.

Evening Primrose: From the Great lake region, Native Americans used the entire plant as a sedative and painkiller. Sometimes it is called “sun drop.”

Goldenseal: Has a long history of use among Native Americans.  The Cherokees would use it for sore eyes, mouth ulcers, tuberculosis, and insect repellent.

Hops: Some Native Americans used the blossoms for its sedative effects, and dried the flowers for a toothache remedy. It removes pain and inflammation in a very short time. The hops can be applied as a poultice to the forehead for relaxation and sedation.

Juniper: Native Americans made juniper tea to relieve colds, joint pain, and stomach aches. Clinical studies have concluded that juniper can inhibit prostaglandin synthesis. These studies clearly indicate that there is sound scientific basis for the use of juniper in the treatment of joint pain.

Passion Flower: Native Americans used a poultice made from the leaves of the passion flower and applied the poultice to a number of different kinds of injuries. I have not been able to find what the effects of the application were meant to do at the site of the industry, nor any scientific basis for the use of the plant.

Psyllium Plantago: Native Americans used the leave to treat sprains, cuts, and as a wash for sore eyes.

Sage: Used to clean their teeth and to heal sores.

Uva Ursi: Native Americans would make a poultice of the leaves for sore muscles.  They would also mix the leaves with tobacco leaves and smoke the mixture to achieve the same relief of muscle pain.  This is an example of a medicine being delivered via inhalation through the respiratory tract.  There are many others Native American medicines that were administered in the same way.

Valerian: a strong astringent and clotting agent, the plant was used for treating wounds.

Wintergreen: Was used as a tea to treat joint pain and sore muscles.

Yarrow: Used as a tea to treat fever, stomach aches, and used as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, they would also chew the leaves to relieve a toothache. The plant also has salicylic acid, the active painkiller in aspirin.

My search for the medicinal practices of our Native American cultures taught me that it is a tradition that is rich in subtlety, and difficult to document.  The practices are even more difficult to understand – and more difficult still to communicate –  without an appreciation for the context within which their varied traditions and ceremonies took place. With the body of knowledge spread across hundreds of tribes, thousands of miles, and many years of unrecorded use, we will never know what has been lost to time and what could have been captured if a Sequoyah (the creator of the Cherokee syllabary or written language) had been born into every tribe.

Although similarities in approach can be seen across the various tribes, the differences are also clear, often relative to the lifestyles and needs of each specific region.  Differences were in no small part due to the medicinal properties of those plants native to specific regions as well.

As the tide of medical theory begins to swing back towards an approach that recognizes, and respects every aspect of the individual, medical science, and pharmacological research will undoubtedly continue to search for the science behind these highly regarded Native American traditions.

I leave you with a quote attributed to the Wabanaki Alonquin healer known as Big Thunder (Bedagi).  His words, though foreign to our modern way of thinking, convey a truth that the human spirit understands and is hard pressed to dismiss out of hand.  See if this doesn’t ring true:

“The Great Spirit is our father, but the earth is our mother. She nourishes us: that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives to us likewise. If we are wounded, we go to our mother and seek to lay the wounded part against her, to be healed. Animals too do thus, they lay their wounds to the earth.”

There is just so much that we simply do not know.