Tracking Doniga Markegard:
A Review/ Essay on Dawn Again
By Jonah Raskin
In 1820, a Massachusetts teenager named Minerva Mayo defied her mother, Sally, and went into the wilderness. "As soon as I was large enough to run out of doors, no one could keep me indoors without confining me,” she wrote in a 34-page memoir that she called "The Life and Writings of Minerva Mayo by Herself."
A self-defined “rogue,” who preferred trousers to dresses, she explained that she “often had to feel the rod of correction, for endeavoring to run from my mother out of doors."
Miss Mayo died in 1833 and was buried in the cemetery in North Orange, cause of death unknown. A single stone marks her grave. Neither famous nor infamous, despite the record she left of her own defiance—and mostly unknown to women today— Minerva Mayo is nonetheless a kind of ancestor of young, defiant American girls and women who have run out of doors and as far from home as possible.
Doniga Markegard is one of them. Her 316-page book is a literary offspring of Mayo’s brief autobiography. Like Minerva, Doniga defied her mother and went into the wilds. Unlike Minerva, she grew up, married, gave birth to and raised four children, and, with her husband, Erik, became a farmer and a rancher in San Gregorio, California, not far from San Francisco.
Markegard ably describes her romance with Erik, their marriage and life together on the land. But it is her experiences as a tracker in the wilds that makes her book, Dawn Again— (Propriometrics Press; $17.95)—riveting reading.
The book is subtitled, “Tracking the Wisdom of the Wild.”
Indeed, for Markegard tracking is a mental as well as a physical activity, and a metaphor, too. It’s something that can be done in woods and fields and in one’s own head.
“I can actually track how my brain patterns have changed over time,” she writes.
Markegard excels as a writer when she describes tracking wolves, especially a “lone white wolf running across the side of a tundra-covered hill.”
It doesn’t take brilliance to recognize that she was, as a girl, a lone wolf who rejected her own family, sought a pack made up of her peers and then broke away from them and grew into a woman who raised a family of her own.
It’s hard to imagine how else her story might have ended and yet be believable. Still, after the dramatic depiction of the author’s rebelliousness and her tracking in the woods, Dawn Again feels anti-climactic. Falling in love with a man, exchanging wedding vows and working hard together on a ranch—all that seems rather predictable and tame, though certainly admirable.
Apparently one cannot go on running with wolves for ever, or at least running after them, at least not in the twenty-first century.
But there are exciting passages all along the way, as Doniga tracks her own ideas as well as her life as a rancher, mother, and advocate for social and economic justice.
If the wild was her teacher, so also were real Native Americans who passed on to her the wisdom of their tribes that went back thousand of years.
Young white Americans who aim to imitate Native Americans can sometimes seem like parodies of themselves. Doniga Markegard is respectful and humble in the presence of the elders. She’s also both respectful and humble when she travels to Europe, meets Old World peasants and decides to throw in her lot with them and with all the peasants of the world.
Dawn Again comes with plenty of endorsements. Starhawk provides a Foreword in which she writes that “Doniga Markegard is a wonder woman, but she’s no myth, she’s the real thing.”
Joan Baez rightly calls Dawn Again “a manual on how to get in touch with our best selves, through getting in touch with the earth.”
But don’t just accepting Starhawk’s and Baez’s words at face value and then walk away. Think of Dawn Again as a kind of wilderness of words that you can traverse on your own, stopping to reflect along the way before moving on.
And perhaps think, too, of Minerva Mayo who was beaten by her own mother for “running out of doors.” It might sound like a cliché, but it’s also true. Women have come a long way since the 1820s. Like men, they can now go into the wilderness and track the wildest of wolves.
Jonah Raskin is the author of A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature.