Ira Grünberger / Connected Archives

The Umbilicus

Words by Tara Houska

Land defender Tara Houska reflects on her experiences fighting Line 3 on the frontlines—and why reconnecting with our future will require reconciling with our past.

Throughout the years of resisting Line 3, and especially during the past year of opposing active construction, I’ve wondered about what nature thinks of us. The land defenders, the folks chaining ourselves to the machines. The prayer ceremonies, the marches down dirt roads. The scouts walking through forests and wetlands, the drones buzzing through the skies. Nature bears witness to humans fighting other humans. Love fighting greed. The future fighting the past. What does the rest of the web of life think of our struggles?


Before one of many nonviolent actions to protect the Earth inspired by Giniw Collective—our Indigenous women- and two-spirit-led effort to live in balance and protect what remains—we met in a place filled with giant oaks whispering the past. As we gathered under the trees, my heart felt their powerful, quietly rustling voices.


They are giants who remember the Dakota and Anishinaabe before, during, and after colonization. Once, they were seedlings who heard the prayers of the humans their ancestors knew, who listened to the tobacco laid by humble hands and grew taller. As they grew, the familiar humans changed: there were new arrivals. New, pale faces with hands that razed entire forests, that pulled sturgeon after sturgeon from the nearby rivers to rot or burn, while Indigenous faces grew gaunt and haunted.


Seedlings-now-trees bore witness to the building of clapboard homes, to the arrival of plows and foreign agricultural practices that ripped apart the earth and erased what was before. Familiar Indigenous faces removed to reservations, to places away from the oaks who knew their voices.


So many relatives cut down, sent elsewhere to build more homes or lavish mansions, to build dams in rivers and mills in the currents. The trees who survived tasted the water change, ingested pesticide runoff and the chemical byproducts from newly built factories upstream. The thinned forests were quieter, the clear-cut forests were silent.


The familiar faces slowly returned, their numbers similarly diminished. Fewer hands remember the tobacco and how to pass on messages. The language of nature is fainter. Lips struggle to shape forgotten words, and the deeper, wordless connectivity pulses through a weakened umbilicus. Time trundles on. The oaks’ shadows grow and wane over generations.


From above, the figures darting toward the exposed oil pipeline that cuts through the woods look like water insects dashing toward a branch floating on a stream. Minutes later, the figures are atop the metal snake, inside its dark depths. Others are chained to heavy equipment that has ceased the grating, clanking rhythm that razes the trees, rends the earth, and brings in more steel pipe. Songs drift on the breeze, some older than the humans singing them, stirring memories of the time of seedlings and rich ecosystems. They are singing about the water, about a basic truth of life: we cannot live without water.

The knot of humans still here in the woods begins to sing again. They walk to the nearby river and lay tobacco down in the earth, in the water. Their words trickle through the dirt, through the roots.


New humans arrive, these ones uniformed and armed. Their belts are full of plastic zip-ties, their hands clutch batons, the expression in their eyes ranges from annoyance to eagerness to uncertainty. The little group of people singing has formed a watchful line, holding their animal-hide drums and braids of sweetgrass up in the air. Drumbeats reverberate heartbeats through the tense air. Those in uniform threaten to use “less lethal” force if the crowd continues to stop the metal snake from sending its poison through.


The singers have formed a tight knot now. A standoff ensues. The screams of cutting tools echo through the watching trees. Cotton hoods are pulled over the heads of those calling themselves water protectors. The rest of the group shouts their support. Some weep, some chant, some stand with defiant, silent jaws. Eventually, the water protectors are cut from their chains, pulled out of the pipeline, thrown into the dirt, and cuffed. They are loaded into waiting vehicles and driven away. The machines they chained themselves to are silent, the pipeline remains above ground; they have stopped a day of work.


The knot of humans still here in the woods begins to sing again. They walk to the nearby river and lay tobacco down in the earth, in the water. Their words trickle through the dirt, through the roots. The weakened umbilicus between humans and nature flickers briefly. An eagle appears, drawn by the message making its way to the above.


So it goes for months, through snow and ice, summer heat, and a historic drought that decimates rivers, as Enbridge simultaneously pumps out the remaining puddles and drills its pipeline under riverbeds. At one point, the company pierces a water aquifer. Millions of gallons spill as the Earth cries out. At another, hundreds of water protectors overtake a major Enbridge pump station, their rallying cries fierce and brave on the already torn-asunder earth.


The machines worked at a frantic pace as more songs rang out, as more water protectors remembered their own humanity. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the clanking, metallic cacophony ripped through the forest. More eyes watching, more messages sent, more humans trying to stop the machines, to reach the ears and hearts of other humans. The din reached a peak as more and more of the Earth was torn apart and the pipeline was buried inside the new scar—then grew quiet as Line 3 reached completion.


A lone water protector kneels at the edge of the Mississippi headwaters. Tears drip into the now-cloudy water, one site of the nearly 30 chemical spills during the Line 3 build. “I’m so sorry, we tried so hard,” I whispered. Tobacco floats across the tiny stream’s surface. The thick rushes sigh and the water swirls. A chickadee calls. The cicadas buzz. Their voices sound clearer. The umbilicus feels stronger. A new pathway to an old pathway feels nearer.


A generation awakening, remembering that we can live in balance, turning away from extractive comforts and toward community with all living beings. Acts of selflessness pushing back words of ego. We cannot know what the web of life thinks of humanity’s struggles: whether nature hopes for us to choose the right path or to finally fall into self-destructive oblivion. We still have agency over our own strand, our own place. Imagining and building a world that doesn’t run on endless, extreme extraction is far less difficult than convincing ourselves we can live without water, without soil to grow food, without clean air to breathe. We must choose our path, or our choice will be made for us.

Shop Atmos Volume 06: Beyond

After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon? We know we need a new future, but what does it hold? What exists on the other side of disaster capitalism and colonization? What wisdom awaits beyond binary thinking and Western views of time and space? What does the cosmos contain beyond life on our planet? For Volume 06: Beyond we are imagining a world free from the constructs that have confined our planet and its people for too long.

Shop Now

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,