Is ‘dwelling’ always an invasion of some type? In the stoical approach, which is the inescapable ethos of our contemporary of the ecological and the sustainable, it seems so, yes. Here, in appropriately ossianic mode for these end-of-times, a paratactical Murdo Macdonald muses on the hybrid in Chicago.
I remember a balcony in Chicago. It did not save my life, but it did enhance it. Its smallness amplified its presence. A limited space going everywhere. I was on the seventeenth floor of a hotel at the north end of South Halstead Street. Looking back on it I realise that I was aging more slowly than those on lower floors, but the effect was not noticeable. Can one prolong one’s life in relative terms or is that a misunderstanding? I wonder if the effect would exist at all had not Einstein spoken nearby in 1933. Perhaps the very fact of relativity is an effect of sympathetic magic, and I was participant in it. Certainly, there was something very ordinary but magical about that balcony. Looking down to the right there was the sound and movement of an expressway. Directly across was an apartment block, which was near enough and tall enough to give me unexpected vertigo looking upwards. It provided an oval cylinder of mirrors for my enjoyment as the light changed. Chicago is a city which takes note of the changing sky. The buildings echo the dome of the heavens and the sphere of the earth. There are more curves than in New York, perhaps more mirrors too.
As with all cities, Chicago is a site of eternal invasion. The first invasion was the French invasion of an Algonquin word, to make the city’s name. Apparently, it was used by La Salle’s expedition in 1680, the original word signifying a place of wild garlic. A validation or extermination of the local by recognition and appropriation of indigenous naming. Time told in favour of extermination, more or less. Eventually, the US military took such appropriation to an extreme in the naming of their helicopters. More invaders came to Chicago as they fled Europe or Mexico or wherever, during this or that war or famine or injustice. Or just because they took an opportunity. Thus, Chicago is a city of refugee invaders clinging to an older name, an older ecological meaning. In my own land the preference of the invaders was not for local names, for why, they might have argued, would one want to name a fort of empire after a locality? In Gaelic, Fort William, before it was even named as such in English, was (and remains today)‘An Gearasdan’, a loan word from English that one must translate back into English, obviously enough, as ‘The Garrison’. Chicago begins life too as a garrison at about the same time as Fort William, evolving into a city in the nineteenth century. The relation between the everyday cultural wreckage of the planet and one’s own current state of mind is interesting and distressing. We are built on the wreckage of others and of ourselves. Within me lies the wreckage of my own indigeneity, as I write in my beloved language of English, which is perhaps not mine at all, for in my ancestry I find it so fully entangled with Gaelic and Scots that eventually it is hardly there. And yet outwith (to use a Scots word that seems to be English, yet is not) myself my indigeneity presents itself, open to inspection every day as I sign a name that is neither my own, nor not my own, for it is a very approximate transliteration from one language to another. My identity thus hovers, perhaps secure its hover, but perhaps lost. By background I am a servant of empire, a person who has access to their own indigeneity but has chosen not to access it, except in some impoverished form. But I am not my background, however much I am informed or misinformed by it. Perhaps instead I should discover myself in a prairie carpeted with wild garlic by the Chicago River, an ecology of mind.
The Celtic invaders of that field of wild garlic, of which I am a recent if temporary example, are interesting. One of them, a Welshman, looked both to the prairie and to Japan to energise his thinking. Outside the houses Frank Lloyd Wright built are ginkgo trees: their dropped leaves on the sidewalk little Japanese fans of inspirational structural beauty. At the Robie House each leaf heralds the house’s integrity of planes until, at last, I cross the threshold of the almost concealed entrance. Wandering the house, I find myself frequently unable to move, caught up in a web of proportion, as if I were myself a capillary in a leaf of indescribable beauty. That is what it is like. Could one live in such a space? As with all great houses, I think I would prefer to live in some untidy and comfortable apartment close by, so that I could visit whenever I wished. Eventually I find a balcony. It is tiny but it defines the house just as does the subtlety of the entrance. The house unfolds itself between those two points, plane by plane, detail by detail, step by step. Later, outside, I take a rubbing of the brickwork. Through my fingertips I feel in contact with Wright. Across the road is the neogothic complex of the university which avoids, in its architectural confidence, the deathly over-reverence that bedevils so much gothic revival. Emerging from its leafy quadrangles I stand at the site of pile number one, where Enrico Fermi initiated the atomic age with some careful calculations in 1942. That age, my own, has not yet found again the human scale that Wright strove for. It is not impossible to do so, but we seem to have got ahead of ourselves. Have we gone too far? Jim Morrison sings ‘this is the end’ over the napalm rich beginning of Apocalypse Now. In 1968 Morrison incited a riot in Chicago. I am struck by his words ‘I am a Scot, or so I’m told’. As with Wright, the Celt dies hard in the artist.
Wright bought the plot for his own house in Oak Park from a Scottish Highlander who had cultivated the trees that the architect fell in love with. So, am I writing of balconies or of trees? Perhaps there is no difference, or at least a continuum. I think of my hotel as a tree trunk of which the rooms are branches and the balconies are leaves. Wright might have liked the idea, and the siding of my 1960s balcony seems to have a nod to him in its pattern. The freeway continues to enthral me, corpuscular vehicles flowing through the heart of the city. And echoing in time beneath the concrete are paths across fields of wild garlic. Or was it a forest? Like the open forest round Sibelius’s house north of Helsinki, or the remnants of the ancient tree cover of Scotland which can still be seen in Badenoch and on the edges of Rannoch Moor. Hyperborean Gardens of Eden, through which we travel as our own ancestors from viewpoint to viewpoint, erecting stone circles here and there to charge the imagination of the artists of the romantic age. That romantic age was the period of destruction that made indigeneity visible through its distress. I am an inheritor of that destruction. My kilt, an approximate garment for an approximate identity, is in a drawer. Tartan is the romantic fabric par excellence. An indigenous product that by virtue of it being an indigenous product was banned for indigenous use but at the same time enabled as a signifier of the oppressor’s military might. A neat little romantic double bind ushering in an ethnocide so effective that one has to admire it, for one must, I hear, admire the British Empire, although the rationale for so doing seems somewhat shaky.
As Chicago began to come into its own Walter Scott was doing his best to patch Scotland together in the wake of a variety of then recent atrocities, mainly, but not wholly, visited on Gaelic speakers. He was largely successful in doing so, not least because of his pan-European vision. At the same time James Fenimore Cooper began to sew bits of America into each other. One can read The Last of the Mohicans as the story of the family of a Scottish servant of empire. As Cooper’s work, dubbed ‘the great American novel’ swept Europe, Chicago grew. Fifty years later it was thriving enough to experience a catastrophic fire from which it emerged like a phoenix to become at last itself and lay the basis for the great city I encountered from my balcony. The year after Chicago’s fire, a psychological pyre was set for Gaelic in Scotland, in the form of a quaintly named ‘education act’ which resulted in beatings for children using their native language. According to Dwelly’s dictionary a single Gaelic word, ‘feuran’ means both ‘wild garlic’ and ‘green, grassy field’, a conjunction of topography and flora typical of the language that had to be beaten out of children for the good of the empire. What was really being beaten out of them was an understanding that language and land exist together, characteristic of an indigenous view but anathema to any imperial project. The rhetoric of empire can so easily dismiss. It is paradoxical that Ruskin, that great defender of nature, comes to mind. In The Two Paths he reveals his inability to go beyond imperial rhetoric, and his naïve collusion with imperial atrocity. There is no obvious way out of such collusion. As a payer of taxes, I collude with the rhetoric and actuality of nuclear annihilation. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would write again and again (and again) until he had irritated his readers into some sort of bleary consciousness.
In the early nineteenth century the people of Strathnaver were cleared from their own patch of wild garlic, Coille Coire nam Feuran, the wood of the corrie (‘corrie’ is a loan word from Gaelic to English) of the wild garlic, and their own way of describing it drifted away from them. The ecological vision of the Gaelic language is expressed in every letter of the alphabet, for every letter takes its being from a plant, and often that plant is a tree. When the Gaelic language developed from song to written language ginkgo trees had no presence in Europe. They were discovered for the West by a Dutchman visiting a temple garden in Nagasaki not long after La Salle had camped on the banks of the Chicago River. It is strange to realise that in writing about the ginkgo I am writing about the oldest tree, the tree of life itself, for it seems that the ginkgo is indeed just that. It has survived in more or less its present form for one hundred and seventy million years. A fossil leaf is much the same as a current one. Ginkgo trees were thus predecessors of humans by over one hundred and sixty million years. Will they outlive us, our admiration being just a short blip of a few million years of their enduring claim to life? Or will we kill them off with our misuse of the planet? Outside the Robie House I picked up three leaves of different sizes, a decreasing series of increasing consciousness of beauty, reanimating the rhythms of nature within me. A tree of life indeed worthy of the patch of wild garlic.
Perhaps that wild garlic was to be found in an orchard, for whether they know it or not, air travellers to Chicago arrive at ‘Orchard Field’ contracted for airline purposes to the mysterious initials O, R, and D. In the Gaelic alphabet O represents ‘Onn’, in English ‘Gorse’. R is ‘Ruis’ what in English is called ‘Elder’. D is ‘Dair’, that is to say ‘Oak’. Even from these three examples one can sense the ecological breadth of that alphabet. A moorland plant, then a wayside tree, and finally a majestic tree of the forest. While ginkgo trees give presence to the exterior of Wright’s Robie House, its interior is the province of the oak, the wood sawn and stained to enhance its every detail. That beauty is a kind of eternity.
[Acknowledgment: My thanks to Annie Storr for making this essay possible.]
 Jim Morrison, Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, Volume 1, (New York: Villard, 1988), page 202. For wider historical and literary context see MacGillivray, The Last Wolf of Scotland, second edition, (Pasadena CA: Red Hen / Pighog, 2016): (i) epigraph; (ii) ‘Riders on the Storm’, page 92; (iii) note on ‘Riders on the Storm’, pages 123-4.
 Murdo Macdonald, ‘Seeing Colour in The Gàidhealtachd: An Ecology of Mind?’, Scottish Affairs, no. 73, Autumn 2010, 1-10.
 Engelbert Kaempfer went to Nagasaki in 1689. His notes and copies of Japanese botanical books are now preserved in the British Library in London. See Wolfgang Michel, ‘On Engelbert Kaempfer’s Ginkgo’, Research Notes, Kyushu University International Repository, 2011, 1-5.