Letter to America: New Names

By Joe Wilkins

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Dear America,

When I was a boy the fields reached all the way to the dry, sagebrush hills, and the hills rose and sloped off to the north, and after school or on summer mornings or with most any given span of minutes on my hands, that’s the way I went. I followed the farm road for a time. Then paths of my own devising—up an irrigation dike to the ditch, along the ditch’s lip to the barbed-wire fence, over the fence and into the messy stand of cottonwoods, where I cached my treasures, bones and fossils and slingshot rocks, the kinds of things one finds and needs on journeys such as these.

Eagles cut the sky above me. Antelope shied and shifted and as was their wont turned and outran the wind. I was myself and not myself. I was my grandfather, all the many stories he told, but mostly the burning young cowboy he had been so long ago, always at a hard gallop across the flats. I was my grandmother, lolling in the tall grass with a book in her hands, the Crow off near the Big Horn singing their mourning songs. I was my father, jolly and black-haired and strong of back, my father loved and then one hard year dead, and so loved all the harder for his untimely dying. I was my mother, the fiercest of them all, firing the tractor and instructing my brother and me to stand there and there, on the wings of the plow itself, so that as she turned us around the field our small weight might lever the blade that much deeper. Coming through the willows I was Buster Knapp, a man I never met but whom everyone claimed was the best rifle shot the county had ever seen. Crossing the cactus- and yucca-studded wastes I was lost John Colter. Standing at the threshold of the dead pile, Crazy Horse.

My back against the warm earth, the song of buffalo grass and wind at my ear, I was myself and all these other selves. I was never alone. I was richly accompanied. After some hours I returned from the hills and fields braver, kinder, sadder, wiser, more willing. This is what the land allows, if we let it. A radical, self-shattering, world-building imagining.


Twenty-three days since the election, 23 days of disbelief and grief and donations and letters and phone calls and meetings—and it is time to go to the woods. We pack our pop-up camper and in a mizzling rain drive west into the Coast Range, north up 101, and finally pull in at Cape Lookout, a gnarled finger of volcanic rock poking into the Pacific. In the early dark we set up the camper, heat leftover clam chowder, despite the rain hike to the angry ocean to say hello. The night falls black and windy. We sleep fitfully, rain threshing the trees.

The next day, though, brings scattered rainbreaks, and we hike the woods, my children hiding in the knuckled roots of hemlock and spruce, calling, when I don’t find them fast enough, in hoots and hooahs, in the voices of owls. We clamber along the rocks above the frothing ocean. We perch on the highest dune and watch the waves lace and unlace, lift and leap and shatter, the globe itself curving west away from us, beneath the clouds. Later, we light a fire, my daughter, five, crunching up handfuls of newspaper, my son, seven, laying kindling sticks just so. I light a match, and flames play across our faces. We gather there, the four of us, a family, and as the embers shift and dim, without a word we click on our headlamps and move once again into the woods. There play shadow and chase, study all that is familiar—fern and salal and Oregon grape—gone in the night so wonderful and strange.

We gather, finally, along a tiny, mossy creek. Like a hand holding us, the cupped, head-high roots of an ancient sitka spruce at our backs. We crouch down, we touch shoulders, hands. We turn off our headlamps and in the pure dark dub ourselves the No Moon Clan, our names now Shadowclaw, Cloudmist, Moonfire, Starlight.

And when, some moments later, I click my headlamp back on, it’s true. My children have transformed. I see it in their rainy eyes, the very way they touch and toe the wet earth.


In the days ahead we will huddle on the banks of creeks and rivers, in the shadows of mountains. We will lay our hands on the hard, good skin of trees. We will be tired, we will be nearly sad to death.

What is coming is not new, true—it is merely, terrifyingly, the worst in us given power—yet it’s true, too, that we will need new names to fight it. We will need all our ancestors, our children, every hero. We need now to be more than what we have been.

Look to the fields and hills and spruce forests, look to the fire, the shadow, the mist running across the moon. How multiple, how yielding and unyielding, how wise in the moment.

Be fierce for love, for all the real things.

Stomach no bullshit.

In all the ways you can, fight. Fight hard.



Joe WilkinsJoe Wilkins is the author of a memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry and three books of poetry, When We Were Birds, Notes from the Journey Westward, and Killing the Murnion Dogs. Wilkins lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.
Read poetry by Joe Wilkins previously appearing in Terrain.org: two poems, two poems, and two poems.

Header photo of campfire by sagarkphotography, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Joe Wilkins courtesy Joe Wilkins.


Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.