Dismantling White Supremacy: The Importance of History and the Role of Neighbors

White people can’t change the story of our collective past, but we can influence the ending. For us to take responsibility for dismantling white supremacy, we must

  • ·      Know white history—both collective and personal-- so we understand and are not surprised to learn of its impact on communities of color.
  • ·      Explore white privilege-- how we benefit directly or indirectly.
  • ·      Own that shameful history.  It belongs to us even though we wish we did not
  • ·      Disown white supremacy completely.  Try to undo the damage it has caused.


A Brief, Incomplete History of White Supremacy in Denver*

Since the arrival of white people in Denver in the 1850s, minorities have suffered, especially Native people whose lands, people, and cultures were and continue to be destroyed.  In Oct. 1864 at Buffalo Springs, a detachment led by Nichols killed Indian women and babies. (In 1987 University of Colorado changed the name of Nichols residence hall to Cheyenne-Arapahoe Hall.  In Dec. at Sand Creek 700 federasoldiers led by Chivington massacred 500-600 Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women and children.  He received widespread support from Denver’s leaders and media.


The Denver Ku Klux Klan era is signified by Mayor’s Stapleton’s tenure, 1923-31 and1935-47 because it was a reign of terror for minorities.  There were hundreds of hooded men marching in the streets, harassment and violence.  West of Denver regular KKK meetings occurred on South Table Mountain, with burning crosses visible, and south of Denver there were weekly rallies near “Kastle” Rock.  Klansmen harassed the Jewish enclave along West Colfax.  They burned crosses on front lawns of black activists, white supporters, blacks who moved to white areas, black professionals and blacks who were business partners with whites.  During this era (1925) Shorter AME Church was destroyed by fire, many believe caused by the KKK.


Racism’s Impact on Denver Neighborhoods, Neighborhood Associations & Schools


The effects of Denver’s KKK era lingered in an aftermath of cultural practices and racist attitudes, particularly related to housing and schools.  As Five Points deteriorated and African-Americans moved east, they risked crossing racial lines—first, Race Street, then Colorado Boulevard, then Park Hill, and Monaco.  Today Denver’s easternmost community retains the name of the mayor who embodied and enabled white opposition to African-Americans. Is it any wonder many feel the slight, the insult, the disregard, the old burn, when they see or hear that name--Stapleton?

  • ·      In 1920 when a black fireman bought a home on Gaylord St., his life was threatened by the Clayton Improvement Association of white homeowners.  Then a white mob threatened a black woman who moved to Gaylord Street.
  • ·      In 1921 a black post office clerk’s rental on Gilpin St. was bombed twice.
  • ·      In 1924 black students from Morey Jr. High were barred from swimming classes.  Students from Manual Training High School tried to attend a dance for white students.  In response, The Denver school board ordered that school social functions be separated. The Park Hill Improvement Association advocated for racially separated schools.  In 1927 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the board’s action unconstitutional. 
  • ·      In 1932 blacks tried to integrate Washington Park’s swimming beach, and beat them up in front of white onlookers.
  • ·      Just as mortgage companies and real estate brokers played a role in Denver’s history of racism, so did neighborhood associations.  Sometime before 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictive racial covenants, neighborhood associations, including the Capitol Hill Improvement Association, urged owners restricting sales of their home to whites only. 
  • ·      In 1967 the court struck down the restrictions in the Clayton will that had prohibited non-white boys from admission to Clayton College for Boys.
  • ·      In 1969, Keyes vs. School District #1 Denver, a lawsuit challenging de facto segregation in Denver public school, was filed.  The U. S. Supreme Court, in * 1973 “compelled by a mountain of evidence,” ordered schools to desegregate, which required busing students due to Denver’s historical practices of “racial steering” in real estate sales and rentals and redlining certain neighborhoods, as well as private restrictive racial covenants.
  • ·      In 1984, as part of their plan to kill prominent Jews, neo-Nazis machine gunned to death Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg.
  • ·       In 1995 the court ended supervision of Denver public school desegregation and busing stopped. In 2017 Denver’s public schools may be even more segregated than they were before court-ordered desegregation.
  • ·      In 1997-98 Skinheads killed a Denver police officer, an African refugee and they paralyzed a white woman who tried to help him.
  • ·      In a one-year period ending 1998, eight African-American workers at Denver area companies discovered nooses planted in their work areas. 


White supremacy has always been a part of U.S. history and the ideas have not gone away.  They go underground and simmer in the dark, sensing when they might survive in the light of day.  We remember and honor the lessons of Nazi Germany.  We speak up, even when it is uncomfortable.  It takes courage to live in this world.



Jackie St. Joan is a white woman who has lived in Denver for 46 years.  She experienced extreme racism that tore her own family apart, and speaks here to white people specifically.   Much of the history is derived from “Home-Grown Racism:  Colorado’s Historic Embrace—and Denial—of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education,” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, University of Colorado Law Review, Vol. 7,  #3 (1999).

Get involved:  Facebook sites: ChangeTheNameStapleton, NE Denver Neighbors for Racial Justice, Indivisibility Denver, Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ Denver)


from Forever Buffs, Published: June 2, 2016

Four CU Alums Pull Teeth to Help Children in Cambodia

By Jacqueline St. Joan (MEngl’97)

Last fall I flew to Cambodia to embark on 10 days of tourism with my Denver friend Laurie Mathews (EPOBio’75). Laurie is executive director of Colorado-based Global Dental Relief, which was operating a week-long dental clinic in Cambodia. I was eager for her to finish up so we could travel, but I agreed to attend the last day of the clinic as her unofficial photographer. Then on the bus to the clinic, I discovered other CU alums also on board: Marc Carpenter, a dental graduate from CU Anschutz, and Barbara Keller, a doctoral graduate from Anschutz. Hours later, when we re-boarded the bus to return from the Village to Siem Reap, I knew I would write about the experiences of that day. The inspiring, remarkable people doing their ordinary work had made this tiny corner of the world just a little better.


Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic


Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic At 7:30 a.m. already the air is warm, but there is a slight breeze and a cloud-filled sky with promising patches of blue. We take a 20-minute drive from the glamorous Shinta Mani Resort in Siem Reap to Kompheim Village Community School that has been transformed into a hygienic dental clinic. We drive from the city into a world of fresh yellow-green rice fields, long-legged egrets and white cows. Several women with orange plastic buckets poke a muddy, drained pond with their sticks, searching for fish. Across the road behind a brick-walled compound with a wooden house on stilts, a father squats, spooning noodles from a bowl into his mouth. A little boy stands next to him, watching every bite.

Soon the other volunteers arrive — skilled, big-hearted, open-minded people — Ukrainian, African-American, Vietnamese-American, Canadian, a woman from Mumbai, a red-head teenager from Holland, Cambodian locals, a Dutch couple clearly in love, a retired nurse from Vail and a few other Americans.

The school is a cheerful sight. Banana trees shelter a red hibiscus that matches the new red plastic chairs lining the wall outside the clinic door where children wait their turns. They are wearing white button-down shirts and dark blue skirts or shorts. Each has a one-page dental record clipped around the neck like a bib. Inside, a room with eight windows and 12 electric fans has been converted to seven workstations. The walls are decorated with white paper plates drawn by children who have made them into clocks. The clinic is designed to be a child’s place.

Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic Bic Aki, a retired dentist from Oklahoma, presses the palms of her hands together in the traditional Cambodian greeting, as she smiles when each volunteer enters, literally singing out, “Welcome Home.” Then she escorts each child to a reclining chair. It is time for the clinic to begin, and I start taking photographs.

Then Laurie tells me that today several volunteers are sick and unable to work, so she has assigned me a job keeping records. It will be my job to keep careful track of those dental records around the children’s necks.

At the station nearest the door is a 10-year old patient facing down a very long needle. I hear a lay volunteer, one who is neither a dentist nor a hygienist, count down from 10 in Khmer, the local language, while the dentist injects anesthetic into the girl’s mouth. 

 “Counting down is all we know how to do in Khmer,” Laurie explains. “In Vietnam, we sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Anything to let the child know that the pain will end when the song ends.” The girl opens her mouth again, and now she’s getting another injection in her check. Then the volunteers lead her to a chair next to a little boy, where she waits with a few others for the anesthesia to take effect.

The day grows warmer, and child after child is examined and treated — a filling here, an extraction there. Old rock tunes sing out from the ‘60s in the clinic’s background: When darkness comes and pain is all around, like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic

Across from my table by the door is a row of four small chairs that Laurie calls “the extraction bench.” It is where the children sit to recover after their teeth are pulled. I want to take the little boy with the big tears and rock him in my arms, but instead I give him a lion sticker and that seems to please him.A dental clinic in Cambodia

At the doorway children from one of about six schools participating are peeking in. A local community organizer traveled to the schools in advance to encourage them to send children to the dental clinic.

One little boy is especially scared and crying loudly. It is difficult to tell how much of his distress is physical pain and how much is fear. The noise increases tension in the room, but the professionals keep to their tasks. We worry that the boy’s screams will frighten the waiting children.

“This is when you need a clown,” I say to Laurie. She closes the door and turns up the music to protect the waiting children.

At lunch, we sit in a circle on the floor, passing plates of pasta and vegetables, mango, banana and dragon fruit. On the playground, teenage boys play volleyball with Marc Carpenter. The Dutch teenager tells me she is taking six months to travel and volunteer with other non-governmental organizations to help in the world.

Soon mid-afternoon fatigue sets in. We are getting tired and the physical operation seems fatigued too. The electricity fails and the lights and fans go off.

I am dripping sweat onto the dental records, a bird cries out, and suddenly the generator charges up and the drills, fans and lights are rolling again. In the corner children are laughing, poking each other, waiting for their turn for drilling and filling. A fresh batch of older children arrives. Their dental problems have gone untreated much longer and are more serious.

“Here, have an elephant sticker,” I say.

Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic By four o’clock the last patients are being served. I am still at my desk, transferring data and counting up patients: by age, by sex, by school, by which tooth extracted, by which tooth filled, by how many sides, by how many children had PT — perfect teeth.

The last child to lie down in Marc’s dental chair holds her own hands as if in prayer. She is so small that they have to check her age — how could she be 8? Though he understands not a word of Khmer, Marc leans in to listen to her.

“Let’s hope she has perfect teeth,” says Marc.

Soon a cheer goes up around the room when the exam is over and the dentist happily pronounces PT. I add her statistic to my collection of data.Children in Cambodia at a dental clinic

The next morning, while the staff is packing up the clinic and moving equipment and records into storage, I asked Barbara and Marc what brought them to volunteer with Cambodia and Global Dental Relief.

Barbara is a lay volunteer. Last year she retired as a high-level executive health care consultant at Novia Strategies and moved to Vail. With her CU doctorate, Barbara has been an administrator as well as a floor nurse at several Denver hospitals. This is her first experience with Global Dental Relief.

Marc is a recently retired Westminster dentist who lives in Denver. He’s never really traveled outside of the U.S. before and now he plans to do more. When I ask him about his decision to volunteer, Marc’s light eyes brighten in response.

“I like travel with a purpose,” he says. He can’t recall exactly how he heard about GDR, but he decided at age 62 to leave his comfort zone and sign up. He has no regrets and will likely do it again.

The inspiring voices of compassion that I heard in Cambodia belonged to Global Dental Relief’s volunteers and staff, like these CU alums. By the time one day in the clinic is over, the change to being a mere tourist seems a let-down, a distraction from real life in the real world.   

Consider joining Global Dental Relief as a volunteer. To view trip schedules and itineraries, visit , call (303) 858-8857 or email for more information.

Jackie Jacqueline St. Joan(MEngl’97) writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. My Sisters Made of Light, her first novel, was a finalist for the 2011 Colorado Book Award in Literary Fiction. She is coeditor of Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States. She has worked as a lawyer, judge and law professor. She lives in Denver where she serves as Ziggies Poet of the Year.

Co-editor (with Annette Bennington McElhiney) Beyond Portia:  Women, Law and Literature in the United States

This pioneering anthology presents an interdisciplinary collage of women's experiences with the law by mixing creative and analytical writings in law and literature. Beyond Portia opens with grounding essays in both literary and legal theory, and offers two collections of essays, stories, and poems that focus in turn on law and literature on families, and law and literature on abuse of women. Drawing on the idea that literature by women can offer material richer than the typical case fact pattern used in traditional legal training, the editors show that both literature and literary methods of reading can help articulate otherwise unspoken premises in legal decision-making, bringing them into the open for examination.

Hardcover available $12 ($8 plus $4 shipping and handling). Pay via PayPal here. Email

Links to Jacqueline St. Joan's nonfiction

AFTERLIFE:  Ghosts in the Writing Field

When I was growing up we had two magazine subscriptions in my house:  Reader's Digest and Arizona Highways.  We were not a literary family;  yet, my mother, who was just a country girl, had been a student with perfect spelling, perfect penmanship, and perfect attendance.  She had memorized perfectly, poem after poem after sing-song poem: 
Shoot if you must this old gray head,
but spare our country's flag!
she would bellow dramatically, her right arm waving above her head.  She sang it seriously and with such passion I was sure that if she ever saw someone threaten to shoot Old Glory, she would happily re-direct a rifle to her heart and die a martyr to the red white and blue.
The gingham dog and the calico cat
she'd begin and a weird light would spark in her eye.  To my mother a poem was a workout:  every poetic idea had a gesture to accompany it.  I was only six myself, but I could see how she must have looked at my age, reciting it in the parlor on Sunday for company. 
Half past twelve and what do you think! 
Not one of them had slept a wink! 

Her pointer finger was wagging in the air, and she was winking and rocking. It was a little embarrassing to see her bald effort at elocution,  but I couldn't take my eyes off of her.  Her store of corny pone was always full:  
Oatspeasbeans and barley grow
Oatspeasbeans and barley grow
Would you rather be a colonel with an eagle on his shoulder
or a private with a chicken on his knee?  

Then her words would singsong here and singsong there, and they still do.


Writing begins in my body and ends up in your head.  How do you ever think up all those things?  someone asked once after a poetry reading.  I don't think it all up.  Thinking comes later.  First,  I have to hear it.  Don't play what you know, Miles Davis advised young musicians, play what you hear.

But even before I hear it, I have to feel it start and stop and start again.   Robert Hass writes that "rhythm has direct access to the unconscious; because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power."  I hear the powerful thing and it makes me feel something. 
It makes me wiggle and want to move towards the paper and pencil. It's not an emotion that has a name: not sad, bad, mad or glad.  The urge to move is more neutral, both voluntary and involuntary. The trick is to get that far and then get out of the way.  Follow it to the first words. Then follow it right into the field.

It's a place.  The words come into the body like a lump or a bump or a bad case of the mumps, but they also come around the periphery of the field of consciousness, what Joy Harjo calls the "field of miracles."  The words are hiding near dreams. 
I often sense I am lying in that field in the morning.  I believe I know without looking how many of my cats are still on my bed. I say all three cats are on the bed, then I see that one of them is not.  She is sitting over there by the glass door licking her front paw.  You can be wrong in the field; in fact that is an important part of it -- you are encouraged to make mistakes.  In this field of the periphery it's right to be wrong.  Here you are looking up between the cracks in the world from your spying station.  Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to stay there quietly in the light where they can see you and just watch them in the shadows:   images form; sounds come forth.  Do nothing, and a  message will arrive.  You have the rest of your life.  We are all waiting to die.  Anyway, Lorca says that's where the poet's true fight is.


As a child I sometimes wished my mother could go to school too.  She seemed to like it so much.   She was especially excited when we were assigned compositions.  She would traipse up the attic stairs and emerge with one or two volumes from the dusty corpse of an encyclopedia she stored up there. The books were dated 1908.  The only thing I'd ever seen that old was a dime my grandmother showed me once.  Somehow Mother would always find something useful in the old books, and I'd wipe the Formica table clean after dinner, pull out the red plastic chairs, and we'd set to work.  This went on for the first few years of grade school.  She would practically write my compositions herself, and I would feel guilty turning them in as if they were my own.  Finally I had to put my foota stop to it.

The composition was a biography of Susan B. Anthony.  I took scissors to the encyclopedia and cut a picture of Miss Anthony in the shape of an oval so it would look like the cameo at the throat of her high-necked white shirt.   I pasted it on the cover of my composition, and using a Sheaffer's washable blue ink pen, I began my final draft.  With great concentration I copied the roughd draft proudly one by one. By the time I came to the final paragraph, I was falling in love with my own writing.  I was lost in the scene that described Miss Anthony as an old woman, delivering a speech on the stage -- something about justice and equality. She was standing alone at a podium in a shawl, looking "frail," it said.  "Frail"? The word "frail" was inserted in the earlier draft in my mother's neat hand. It was not my word.  I had no idea what "frail" meant. But the paragraph was so beautiful, and I didn't know a better word, and I didn't want to call my mother's attention to the moral dilemma I now was in, since she had put me in it. So I learned the compromises writers make, copied the word "frail," and finished the job. I was ashamed because it was a fraud. The next time she got that "Let-me help-you-with-your-homework" sparkle in her eye, I turned her down. 

"Oh, now you're so smart you don't need my help.   It's  ‘Mother-please-I'd-rather-do-it-myself!’ is it?" she replied, mimicking the television commercial that featured the impatient teen-age girl fronting-off her mother.  "Just like when you were little and wouldn't hold my hand crossing the street!"  she continued, going off somewhere in the wind without me.

I could hear something calling me from out in the field.  Something else was starting to die. It would take many years of waiting before I could tolerate this ongoing tension between what was calling me and the dying me. 


The problem is that as soon as we start to wait attentively for the sound, the image, or the beat, our minds start to spin somewhere else.  We forget to remember to keep waiting.  We lose our concentration, and the inchoate sounds of poetry become the drone of the shopping list.  Shifting images that resonate in timelessness become of the familiar pages of the Day-timer full of lists of planned activities jotted down next to the numbers we assign to time. 

This is what takes us away from art -- not the need for money, or for uninterrupted time, or for the right teacher, or for a publishing contract (These do have important effects all their own.)  Forgetfulness steals us away from the paper and pencil that betray their art.  The mind is looking for something to do, anything at all.  So you give it the shopping lists and the calendar.  You control it with no better effect than you control your mind.  Write it on your prayer flag, my friend:  Remember!

My father was a music teacher.  I could listen to the lessons from the top of the basement stairs.  His student's clarinet  played slowly and deliberately while his loud deep voice intoned the beat:
                        Baaa/BaBa Ba
                        Baaa/BaBa Ba

The bass line of my writing today was born in that basement.  The  treble was trained by television. 
During the years I was in high school, my father was teaching himself to play the flute.  He was a union man--a working musician. Art and beauty were good -- very good.  So were good wages and reasonable hours.  He would work at night.  During the day he would teach students, attend union meetings, have dinner with us, then nap in front of the TV until it was time to get ready for work again.  With a schedule like that he had no time to practice the flute, so he played during commercials.  He kept the instrument primed laid across the mantel.  Dinah Shore would start singing about Chevrolets, and he'd switch off the sound, pick up the silver tube, run a few scales, check his embouchure in the mirror, adjust the position of his fingers and elbows, and finish all the variations in several keys before the horses and guns appeared again on the screen.  Then he'd settle back down in his chair from where Bart Maverick and Ben Cartwright were his kind of guys.


What keeps me from writing is a certain weakness of the mind and a little dread.  Trepidation.   I recoil from the mystery with a lingering sense still stored in my body that writing is not a legitimate way to live.   In this matrix of generating material,  I have to get out of the way of my life, so that I can truly have my life.  Otherwise, I forget my intention to write in the field and instead fill my days with items from "the list," all those obligations frozen in time.  I could die, I fear, and never complete them.  In the field of the imagination all of this makes perfectly good sense--just like shamanism or infinity or the dual nature of light.  In the field, time melts, but you must be brave. 


From the time I was ten or eleven I felt that something was terribly wrong. I polished my saddle shoes nightly, and had my homework ready on time.  My mother stood on the speckled linoleum  and ironed my blouses long past the age when I could have done it myself.  Now I think she kept doing it to keep her sanity in those years when she was so unhappy and we couldn't talk or do anything about it.  The shirts were clean and bright and carries so much promise.  In those days I'd rush home from a friend's house in the cool dark morning of winter  with a growing sense of disaster at home.  But ther was no obvious disaster.  She'd be watching television and waiting.  Or ironing and waiting. 

Always waiting.

My first short story was about a lonely little girl in a park with an imaginary playmate and a mother in a mental hospital.  She was really a very angry little girl.   I entitled the story in code:  "Step on a Crack."  Since everyone knew the rest of that verse, my outcry was complete.  We could pretend the story was fiction, and since I never said my mother was crazy, I without fault.

Meanwhile my father kept playing his sax:  a one and a two and I love Paris in the Springtime, I love Paris in the Fall.  Because he was a music teacher, he knew about the importance of practice -- that as long as you put in your time, your star would climb. You'd improve;  you had to. His body, as much as his mind, was learning to play the flute.  My body does the writing and my mind takes the hits.  Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, says the key to any success is being in continuous motion -- repetitive drills that train the player on an experiential level to develop an intuitive feel for the connection between their own movements and the other players.  Anyone who is open and receptive can have the ball in this place of total and profound relaxation.

It's the field again. 

For example, whatever made me write about my father fitting music practice into his schedule?  You think I sat down and tried to think up a good example to persuade you to squeeze writing in between Cosby and Star-Trek? No way.  I don't have that kind of control.  I just was sitting here typing and feeling relaxed watching the cursor move across the screen, and I started hearing  my father's voice -- Ba/BaBa/Ba -- and I could see his right shoe tapping, and the next thing I'm telling you about how he was a teacher and then about how he learned to play the flute.  I had no idea I was going there anymore than I knew I was going to describe my moral dilemma with my mother over the word "frail," and pages later tell you about her frailty.   My point is that I didn't do it.  The words did it.  I just followed along.                   


My mother died this year. She slowly lost her mind.  Her brain responded to the interrupted flow of oxygen with little bursts of electrical charge that zapped first her memory, then her energy, and finally her life.   

The day before she died I visited her.  She was all dressed up and her fine white hair was fixed.  She slumped down in her wing back chair. One side of her mouth drooped and she couldn't talk. She could make sounds, but her eyes were red and strained, flicking around her mind, searching for the word that would unlock the door to the world of words again.

I wasn't sure she understood the words I spoke, so I sat on the floor at her feet by the chair, and I wrote her a few:   

Your name is Peggy. 

You are my mother. 

I love you. 

You will feel better soon.

I handed her the little notebook as if to ask her the check my spelling.  She turned it this way and that.  I started to take it back to read it aloud to her, but she snapped it away from me with all her strength.  She kept turning the words this way and that, over and over, until finally, exhausted, she surrendered back into the chair. She looked so frail I believed she would be dead soon.

Later that night my sister and I helped her into her bed.  She was agitated, pulling her nightgown off, her underpants too.  She wanted to be naked.  So she curled up on her side, pale and soft between the white sheets.  She was the shape of a scoop, a slice of the moon, the line of an egg. We pulled up the sheet to cover her in the dim room and she pulled it right down, hard, squeezing the palm of her protective hand down in there between her legs.

Ten years before this, waiting outside of the hospital room where my father would die,  my mother and I sat in silence.  We were tired from the on-going strain of it all.  She turned to me and said:  “He told me to meet him at the pass.  I could hardly hear him at all, so I leaned over to put my ear right over his lips.

“Meet me at the pass,” he said,  “Come alone.”

In the field of reverie I am wise and wordless.  The urge toward words is small and moves quietly, simultaneously with all else that cannot be named.  The urge widens my world.  In the field of ghosts I dream of my grown children as if they were six and eight years old. I contact another galaxy where my father's foot is under the kitchen table, tapping the back beat; and my mother is out there with him, winking and wagging her finger in his direction.  She picks up the iron and pushes words back and forth across the board.  She is preparing it for me.  She is ironing a clean white shirt.


It is a world of birds here in the morning.  Busy magpies with sticks.  Occasional duck couples settle into the lake.  A thousand starlings fill the empty branches of an enormous poplar. When I look up at the tree again, and the black birds have all departed without a sound, without a trace.   I am stunned.  I  grieved the whole year my last child left home.  When I dream at the change of seasons,  it is often about them as little children, as they were then, sleek and wild, our life full of surprise and struggle.  In the dreams we are together again, as if they arrive and depart from me regularly due to the energy and excitement of the equinoxes.  All the seasons of my life  circle around and I can be all ages.


There was a thrill last Fall, driving along Cherry Creek, my hands on the wheel,  traffic rushing the other way, my eyes watching the flock of wild geese flying overhead.  It was more than one flock, there were twenty, then thirty or more geese.  Oh, my, here they come.  They are honking the familiar uh-whonk, uh-whonk.  Even more.  And more.  They kept sweeping along, crossing the flood plain at fifty feet.    My head was halfway out the window, twisted upwards, peering into the heavens, and I was starting to slow traffic behind me.  I stopped counting at a hundred. I glanced at the oblivious drivers passing, lighting cigarettes, their windows up.   Look everyone.  They're back!  Look now!    I almost began honking my horn.  Listen to them.  Please just look!  I remember how I felt when their feathered underbellies, their horns honking, their wide winging and careening confluence graced my day, opening my mind from its tight nucleus of pettiness to the fabulous expanse of the wild world.  I felt lonely for the people of Denver, the ones who didn't notice them.   At that moment I envied the families of geese for their very familyness.  I was a  lone human being,   joyful in their presence. 

The first time I noticed Canada geese flying was an October several years before.  My daughter Dana had just entered college, so I sold our Victorian home near City Park and bought a simple,  large, inexpensive townhouse for myself.  I was smoking a cigarette on my tiny, concrete patio, resting from unpacking, surrounded by a privacy fence and the top windows of  my new boxed neighborhood.  The geese appeared suddenly, and it had the same effect as later on the day down by Cherry Creek.  Taking my breath with them, they soared over, not thirty feet above my head, forty or fifty geese en route to New Mexico, honking at dusk.  Throughout that autumn I would listen for their arrivals, and run out on the balcony, the patio, the driveway, anywhere,  anytime--toothpaste on my lips, or laundry detergent in hand, nightgown, glasses or no glasses--just so I could feel that sensation when flocks fly over:    I hear you.  You are beautiful.  Take me with you. 

When love is new it is like wild geese skimming the ground.   Once I fell in love with someone I shouldn't have--like that, out of the blue.    It was the season of endings for me.  My father had died the month before, and my world was starting to shift on the diagonal.  There was something about the shape of neck and the way I felt completely safe: a deep need I fell into.  I remember standing in the naked dark facing out the bedroom window, watching the rain fall on the pines in streetlight.  It was a kind of magic sprinkling over my life,  entirely elemental and transient.

Today when I searched for the Canada geese, I returned to the place where I raised my own brood--in the neighborhood near City Park.  If they were anywhere they would be there among the mallards and the blackbirds, the cattails, the joggers, the drug dealers.   I've seen them congregate there for over twenty-five years--not flying really, but swimming, eating, sunning in the park, where I'd steer my toddlers away from the goose poop and onto the gravel of the playground.  I circled the avenues around the barren park until I found one flock, only ten geese, grazing the sports field directly north of the Museum of Natural History.  They were one whole team and a coach, feeding on the brown grass of the infield between first and second base. Geese prefer the wide open spaces where they can keep an advantage over their opponents.

These ten compact, well-proportioned geese are small, maybe ten pounds each.  I have a heavy cat at home, just about their size and weight, which gives me an idea of what it would be like to hold one close to me, to carry it around the house showing it my things, feeling it relax over my shoulder, trusting.  Canada geese appear to be gray, an impression created by the shaded scrims of neutral grays, browns, whites, and blacks.  The feathers are smooth, as if someone had just combed each goose and sent it outside to play.  They have long pointed bills for eating, and a snowy bib under their chins.  Their necks are very long and black with a white chin strap at their jawline, giving them a dignified, uniform, slightly military carriage.

I am bundled in goose down myself this morning, plus fleece pants, a baseball cap, dark gloves and glasses.  I woke early to the click of furnace igniting, feeling the warmth of the down comforter my son Chris gave me for Christmas.  My cats lay still like three piles of furry need and hunger staring at me on my old country bed.  But  I dressed quickly and went out in the March morning to sit in right field pretending to ignore Canada geese, trying to appear non-threatening.  The geese have had me under constant observation since before I got out of my car.  The sentinel goose, its stalk of a neck straighter and higher than the others, scans the field with a three-quarters range of vision.  Ignore me, I think.  Imagine I'm a squirrel.  He continues as sentry while the others feed.  The eating is intense.  They seem to peck and pull at the grass repeatedly forty or fifty times per minute, then rest for thirty seconds or so.  Several sleek feathers float on the tips of brown grass, preened and discarded, fletching the park.  I tug on the bill of my cap, scanning the ground like a goose.  Indeed, even though the lawn looks entirely brown, there are short blades of new green growth all over the area, and under my knees.  I could lean over to bite them off with my own teeth, if I only had a bill that was long enough and sharp. 

Colorado Boulevard traffic continues steadily just fifty yards to the east.  A service road between the museum and the zoo is mostly empty.   An occasional car or light truck passes.  I know a man is behind me in the parking lot; I hear his engine turn over.  I am having a hard time keeping my mind on geese.  They seem to fade into the cityscape along with the asphalt, the yellow brick, the steel posts.  I remember the Kelly green uniforms Dana wore to play soccer with the Leprechauns over in that field.  The humming of the traffic and the constant feeding gestures of the birds make me sleepy in the cold morning air.  To observe is to keep my mind on the goose.  But my mind slips into memories of last night, when Chris came over for dinner.  I'm drawn back to something about the way he sliced a hunk of fresh bread.  My mind is re-writing my life, like it always does when loosened.  Given enough freedom, it would keep mixing memory with perception, present me with innumerable versions of my past, and then convince me by its trickery that each and every story  was the truth.  Exuberance can be my downfall, since I can convince myself of the rightness of almost anything if I can work up enough interest and excitement about it.  Since for now the geese have wrested my imagination away from other possible interests, it becomes the geese that I both fear and desire.

Now they look neither fearful nor desirable.  They have taken positions five to ten feet apart from each other, covering the outfield methodically, like the teeth of an infield tractor smoothing the ground between innings.    I move ten feet closer to them, very, very  slowly. 

One of the geese-- I have no idea which one, since the only ones I can begin to distinguish are the sentry and its nearby mate--begins to lead the others from this baseball diamond to the next.  This happens very calmly, quietly; they are lining up single-file like first-graders crossing the field, heading to the edge of the infield in the middle diamond. 

Today the lead couple takes turns, one leading the flock, and the other one bringing up the rear. They have their long feathered periscopes up, scanning as they go. This couple has mated for life, as I have done.   Several times.  Geese literature is full of  romance--the courting, the calling, the defending, the harmless fighting, the mounting, the language before, during and after love.  I read a story about Duke, a gander whose little family of goose, two yearlings, and two goslings was shot down one by one from a hunter's blind in a Wisconsin field adjacent to Heron Marsh.   Duke flew high and fast and barely escaped massacre himself while listening to the cries of his daughters below.  Duke circled around and returned after dark, honking loudly.   No response. 

Uh-whonk!  Uh-whonk!  Silence.
Uh-whonk!  Uh-whonk!  Only the background of bullfrogs and cicadas.

Duke stayed in that refuge the entire winter, forgoing the tender grasses of the south for acorns so that he could remain near the piece of  sky where he last saw his mate.  He stayed alert, sounding the distress cry of separated, lost, and widowed geese:  oh!-oo, oh!-oo.  He was attuned to the sound of all birds in his desperation to hear the responding call of his familiars.  The gamekeepers named him Duke, and fed him grain all winter.  oh!--oo,  oh!-oo.

The next Spring Canada geese returned to the refuge, but Duke kept to himself.  One day he saw a lone goose swimming,  and although it was not his missing mate, he replied when she called to him:  Uh-whonk!  They swam together that day, and he watched while she fed,  and she watched while he fed.  The gamekeepers noticed they spent most of their days together:  "Looks like Duke has found his Duchess," they remarked.  Seeing the geese together so constantly also relieved something in the men.   Duchess led Duke on a walk to the other side of the marsh, where ducks dove and emerged from the deep lake with fresh tendrils of cattail roots clinging to their backs and their feet.  The ducks shook off the vegetation, a delicious meal for the two geese, who floated steadily a short distance behind them.

The other Canadas continued north, eager to begin their Spring nesting.  Duke had walked and swam and fed with Duchess, but, since he had mated for life with a different goose,  he had restrained himself from mounting her.  He would wait until they flew north together.  One morning he flew high, calling to her to follow him, while hundreds of geese all over Heron Marsh were lifting into the skies.  She called back to him, flapping her wings furiously, honking and honking,  until she was exhausted from the effort.  She never left the ground.  Duke watched her from above, circling around, as she turned from him and floated towards center of the lake to rest.  He called to her again.  This time she moved towards the edge of the water, walked out of the lake, again beating and shaking over and over, calling to Duke:  uh whonk!  uh whonk!  But Duchess could not fly.  She carried a piece of metal deep in the tissues of her chest, and although one wing was wide and open, the other was contracted next to her.  When she attempted expansion, the wing would fail.

Duke left Duchess there that day, and didn't return until Fall.  The men saw a lone Canada circling several hundred feet above the refuge, as was his way, as he always did at first, and they knew it was Duke because he was so high and alone.  He called down to the refuge, unable to spy her among the thousands that had landed.  He called again and again, until the goose he was looking for, the one who waited for him, floated quietly around a mound of bulrushes, her eyes scanning the sky where she heard his call.  Uh-wonk, uh-wonk uh-wonk,  she repeated, beating her wings  enthusiastically  in the water, splashing, calling his attention to her.    Within minutes, she heard his low short grunt, as Duke planed down and settled in beside her to stay.

When love grows cold it is like an invisible wild goose silent and circling.  There is a man is Wisconsin who fell in love with me because, he said, I was not like the woman back home.   He said I listened to him without criticism, or grasping, or expectations.  Then he lied to me once;  so  I packed his bags for him, without criticism, or grasping, or expectations, and dropped him at a the sign marked "Departures," so he could catch the next flight out.  What exactly happens at times like that I do not know.  He is a good man,  really  a very sweet man, and the truth is I could have loved him back.  I see myself  sitting in front of a cup of cold coffee with tears rolling down my face.  I see him not knowing what to say.  I see him wanting to fix it.   He married the woman back home and quickly regretted it, which he wrote to let me know.   Now he calls me long-distance whenever business takes him out of town.  We never  really know how much time we will have together.

Geese usually fly in tandem, one resting on the curve of air behind the other one's flight.  Geese find City Park every Spring and every Fall, where they mix with the local Canadas, and stay for a day or two or three to eat their fill before moving where their instincts direct.  Human history is part of their history in Denver.   Canadas choose to land in Denver during their migration, in part because other Canadas reside here year round.  The presence of others in a place is one way a  high-flying goose decides where to land to feed.  They conclude, as most travelers do, that where others have found safety, water, and food, they can find the same.  It's like choosing a restaurant in a strange town by the number of cars lined up in its parking lot at supper time.  

Why did some geese decide to make Denver their home?  Until outlawed  in 1935, one woman raised Canada geese to sell them as live decoys to hunters who, without the live decoys, were unable to match their own wits against the intelligence of the geese.  The decoy Canadas would  attract flocks of migrating wild geese.  People exploited the strong family ties of these birds by separating mated pairs from their young.  The birds would begin calling to each other: a loud peeping of lost goslings alternating with an alarmed honking cry of the parents. 

Thus  the distress would attract wild birds from other flocks as well.   After this practice was banned, the descendants of the decoys and the descendants of geese injured in these killings, became the local non-migrating population who remain year 'round in the generous and open parks of Denver.  Today if a local goose is separated from her goslings, and she calls to them in her panic, she can expect to hear in reply, a rapid series of light, soft notes--wheeoo, wheeoo--the coos of contentment sounded by goslings to express their relief at being found. I remember homesickness as a child as a longing so full of dread and disorientation that to spend the night two blocks away from my mother was physically painful.  The only relief was to hurry home, with no spoken explanations, and fall asleep to the canned laughter of the 1950s, my mother's favorite shows on the TV downstairs.  Now I don't know who I really feared for, my mother or myself, since the emotional distinctions between us were weak in those days.  Since my father worked nights, and since my older sisters had married, now if I slept over at a girlfriend's,  my mother was home by herself. She never complained that I left her alone, or even hinted that I should come home early.  But there was something in the tone of her voice, the quality of her breathing, that let me know that really she'd be much happier if I was home with her.  And I would no longer be homesick--that sense of unending loss and displacement.

When my son was an infant, I placed him carefully in his green carriage and wheeled him to the store, where slept there while I shopped. 

Attracted by  shoes in the next department, I moved away from him and for the next five minutes I forgot I was a mother.   Then, remembering, I rushed to him--certain I would be punished by an empty place in the carriage where he used to be.   I felt alarm, grief, shame--at the fragility and randomness of human error--to lose something  so fundamental to your life in such a casual and final way, a way that could cause someone to raise the question of whether  I should be trusted with the task at all.  Imagine then having developed in your life a strong sense of direction and  belonging, and suddenly losing yourself, the home you return to. 

Today I hear a lone helicopter chopping above City Park.  Unseen birds calling from somewhere to the west.  A truck downshifting.  Seals barking from inside the zoo.  The heavy equipment generator humming.  The piercing cry of a peacock.  Ten silent Canada geese eating peacefully in a park in the U.S.A.  Suddenly, another flock of geese circles fifty feet above.   Ten more Canada geese calling from above me!  The sentinel replies to the calling goose.  They circle again.  But, of course, they see me, and circle away from the baseball field in the direction of the lake.  They are flying high, running reconnaissance, scanning the skies for safe feeding grounds near the locals.  I asked one expert who has been studying wild birds in Colorado for over thirty years how to tell the migrants from the locals.  "That's pretty hard," he said, "Honestly, lady, I have no idea."  I am guessing then that these geese flying high above me are probably early migrants, having departed New Mexico for an early nesting in Alberta or Saskatchewan.  They are stopping here to rest and to feed before continuing their flight north. I like to think they  are the ones most longing for home.  

I focus my attention on the Canada geese feeding on the lawn.   I count twenty-eight.  They  are feeding in the same areas, passionately pulling the new grass up by  helpless roots. I cannot tell if there are now three flocks or two;  but from the way they are grouped around the lawn, either theory  is plausible.  I find out in the only way I can:  I get up.  Immediately three goose heads shoot their full vertical lengths. Three sentries are on duty, and I conclude there are, in fact, three flocks of Canada geese on the lawn west of the museum in City Park.  I turn to step away from them and hear three honks behind me;  I keep going and leave the question open, as to whether they are confirming my finding that they are three flocks or objecting to my departure.

The Canada geese spend half of their lives arriving and departing, skirting climate and food supplies in both directions.  They depart Canada in early Fall each year.  Those that fly over Colorado gather in a staging area near Calgary like thousands of troops assembling for a mission.  They  converge to follow one of twelve migration corridors, each one 30 to 50 miles wide.  The goal for the geese is not only arrival, but survival.  From the heights of the sky, they search for waterways, the most likely indicator of new vegetation growth.  They prefer the young green vegetation of early Spring, and grain, when they can find it.  Like all travelers, they must combat fatigue, hunger, disorientation.  And in the Fall, the geese are all under fire.   Wild geese  are careful and rarely make the same mistake twice.  Once they have witnessed the slaughter of their own, or been pipped themselves, if they survive the aftermath of it, they will likely avoid that killing ground for the rest of their lives.  Survivors go where there is refuge from the gun.

The Canadas that fly over Denver are the Highline Population that breed in the high plains of the corridor that runs along the east side of the Canadian Rockies, across Alberta and Saskatchewan, into Montana, Wyoming, and ending in the marshes of New Mexico at the Bosque del Apache refuge south of Santa Fe.  They are three kinds:  Western, Great Basin, and Giant Canada Geese, and, if they survive the journey, they will remain south until Spring.  If feeding drives them south, surely sex drives them north.  They sense the vernal shift in the angle of the earth's relation to the sun, and the geese begin departing in small flocks, and at a more leisurely pace than in the Fall.  Often the yearlings join other flocks, as the Canadas begin their flight north to the birthplace of the mother goose, who returns to nest in her own brooding ground.  There they will mate again, and she will lay five or more eggs, and incubate them with her body, while the gander surveys dangers, threatening any comers with his strong, long neck, his extended tongue, his horrifying hiss, and the display of his daring wings.  In the short summer months they will raise the goslings to young geese, spend a month  molting, all of them flightless while they grow new feathers.  Then just in time for the Fall chill, new growth and full-fledglings  prompt them into the southern skies. 

Almost every state in the union witnesses the great migration.  The magical navigation  of the geese is a result of their uncommon strength and range of vision.  They can recognize landmarks and  read the paths of waterways as they fly, travel by starlight at night and by magnetic fields in cloudy weather. With tail winds they may easily fly forty or fifty miles per hour 100 feet or more above the earth's surface. I asked my expert how long does it take them to get to Denver from Calgary.  Days?  Weeks?  Months?             

"Well,"  he said, "That's a tough one too.  But I can tell you this.  There was one time when I was down near La Junta and some of the boys there kept in touch by short wave with the boys up north.  They'd call down in the Fall just as soon as the geese took right off.  This one time they got the call as usual, but there was  a terrible storm near Calgary, high blowing winds, rain, cold, and all the geese took off in it.  Headed south.  They were all very worried about them."  He paused.  "You won't believe this, but the geese were in La Junta the next day!  So that's what they can do when they put their minds to it and have a good wind to carry them."

Today the newly arrived flock  lands east of Ferril Lake, where they have a postcard view of the boathouse, the downtown skyline and brilliant Mount Evans.  Spots of frost on the grass seem to puff up and then melt.  The sun sends winter luminance over a circular collection of brambles in a flagstone courtyard where  yellow roses reign in summer.  The new flock did choose to land where others already were.  Thirty geese are now feeding in this open area west of the museum, where once I met someone else's husband secretly for lunch.  One Canada looks up at me and sounds a soft low, intimate little grunt . He is very handsome;  I decide he is responsible and strong, the marrying kind.  He continues eating, and every few steps emits one low, steady honk in my direction.   I see what I assume to be the wife come running to him from behind me.   She is only slightly smaller, does no honking while they eat, and even though she could--and often does do it as well--she lets him do all the sentinel work for the entire flock.  

Since geese are rarely alone, almost always at least in a couple, and often traveling in extended families of other geese, communication is paramount for both individual and group survival.  It is by their honks that you know them. When they talk, what do they say?   The low, short repeated grunt I was hearing, is one mate calling the other, "Come, come."  Researchers have classified the lexicon of the geese into ten comments:  hissing at threat; honking  to advertise one's presence and to greet a separated mate; the kum! kum! kum! grunt I had been hearing this fellow make;  a loud, prolonged, snoring sound peculiar to the male and directed only at his mate;   the after-sex  snore, light and brief;  the scream of pain when bitten;   distress due to separation or attack;  loud peeping when lost;  and a rapid series of light soft notes made by lost goslings when found.  

"What if there be no more goose music?"  naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote, expressing his fears of the destruction of the natural world in our time. Imagine the silence in the great expanse of history and geography. 

Historically, ancestors of the Canada geese emerged fifty million years ago, when mammals were only beginning to appear on earth.  Geographically, today the dappled blue expanse of water and land on a map of North America is Canada, where the  generous lakes and snaking rivers of the North provide safe harbor for the birds, where they can mate, sleep, incubate their eggs until the chicks pip.  Imagine the migrating hordes of the past and the future converging to darken the sky, circling the West, lower and lower, putting out their webs, braking with their wings and surfing along the water, now folding their wings, now floating together becoming one goose.  Now hear a low short grunt, as a second goose planes down and settles in beside the first.                 


* A portion of this essay was published as “In Flight,” in Empire Magazine, Sunday Denver Post, Oct. 1996.
Copyright Jacqueline St. Joan, 1996.