My teacher and I rendezvous just after dawn. I set up my tent while he searches the small roadside campground for firewood. Picked clean by previous campers he opens his van and carries wood to the fire pit. He has a rake, a small shovel and an ax. While I set up my tent he gathers dried grass, deftly shaves off kindling from the split logs, picks up old garbage and rakes the pit readying it for a fire. He looks in the trunk of my car. Words are unnecessary. I have no firewood or even a small camping shovel. It takes me a while to set up my tent. He watches.
I finish and sit down to rest. He begins to talk. I know why we have arranged this time, but he will say it again as if he has never said it before. “You are Earth. You will go alone up the mountain. Stay the night, perhaps more than one. Yes, more than one. You need to learn how to live in a sacred manner. This is part of your training.” He does not speak these words but I know I am not to return until I can say “yes” and commit to the words he often says:
We walk to a high meadow surrounded by aspen, spruce and pine forest. His voice soft and vibrant, he introduces me to his family, my family. A family comprised of invisible spirits of place and ancestors that now live in spirit form, the non-human family, birds or winged ones as he calls them, and the four-leggeds, creepers and crawlers. The plant world he calls the green people and particularly honors the trees by calling them the standing people. He speaks to the elements and the alchemy of the elements, thunderbeings, strong winds and the earth body, the ancient stone people. He acknowledges the flow of water in streams and rivers and the rain that falls from the sky, the volcanic fire that erupts from the earth or moves through the forrest. His voice low and reverent. He tells the inhabitants of this mountain that he is entrusting me to their care. He asks for their help teaching me. He asks them to share their home and thanks them, offering tobacco as he speaks in his native tongue.
I sought out this Medicine Man because spirits, the invisibles, have been a part of my life since I was a small child. Finding my teacher has helped me accept their presence and not feel a bit crazy. But alone in an unfamiliar place, will I feel their comforting presence? I’d read about holy indigenous people teaching in this sacred manner, teaching the way of inter-relatedness, inner-dependence and that we are all related. I am in love with this philosophy, a romantic. But walking next to this mountain of a man, hunching my shoulders against the chilly evening breeze, I doubt my decision to receive the teachings of a ‘medicine man,’ a man without formal education whose face is creased with lines revealing a life of many hardships. He wears his clothes handsomely and walks with dignity, but his clothes and his old van have seen better days. He habituates thrift stores and an occasional dumpster excursion delights him. Lifestyle differences somehow increase my love for him, and underneath my inexperience and fear I trust him.
I doubt my
decision to receive the teachings of a ‘medicine man,’
… underneath my inexperience and fear I trust him.
As we walk back to the campground he says, “Tomorrow before sunset, hollow out a burrow in the earth. Wrap yourself in your blanket, and cover your body with earth.” That evening we sit warming ourselves with a small fire before he retires to his van and I crawl into my tent. He is comfortable with silence.
In the morning after some bad coffee he cleans up our camp. Before he leaves he says, “When you come down the mountain come to my home. I’ll be going on the road in two weeks so come before then.” The words two weeks startle me. Does he really think I should stay two weeks? I don’t ask. Most likely he would just smile. He asks if my car has gas while he checks the soundness of my tires.
After he leaves I linger for a couple of hours. The choice of packing up my tent and driving home occupies my thoughts. I close the door flap on my tent, check the stakes and place a couple of stones to secure the rainfly where it drapes to the ground. I look at it as a home that I will return to and hope that it will still be there to welcome me. Mid-morning I hike alone up the mountain, stand where two had stood the day before. I place my feet on the ground where my teacher prayed and try to stay calm, to be a worthy student.
My small pack contains water, a blanket and trail-mix. I had decided to leave behind my flashlight, watch and heavy rain gear. But now I question this decision. My camping experience is primarily car camping where you find a sight, park your car and set up your tent. My journal, my personal thread that weaves my life together, is left behind along with several others hidden in drawers and covered with clothes. In essence I am going as naked as I can with minimal food and water. Night cold and rain protection are the clothes I am wearing and one wool blanket.
The sun is low on the western horizon. I find some sturdy fallen branches and begin to hollow out my earth burrow. Lining it with my blanket I nestle in shaping the hollow to my body. Starting with my feet I wrap the blanket around me cover them with earth working my way up to my shoulders, folding the blanket over me and scooping earth on top of the blanket, gently patting it down as if I am planting a tree or tomato plant or burying a bird, a pet turtle that no longer lives. My body disappears hidden by a rounded mound of earth. Memories of burying beloved animals as I returned their bodies to the earth bring tears. I bite my tongue, stop their flow and wish I could will my fear away.
Buried in soil, decaying leaves and root hairs, my face and part of one hand are exposed. I watch the stars emerge, and scan the dark woods, eyes wide unblinking, shadows shapeshifting, disappearing as new ones appear.
Time passes beyond twilight into the dark of the night. Shadows are replaced by moonlit forms. Some move more quickly than others. I hear rocks rolling down a slope, branches snapping. Something is running through the woods. Running from what? Hunter or prey? I see eyes reflecting the light of the moon and stars, their bodies concealed in the trees. Is it safe? Am I safe? I listen, watch, smell for the silent ones, those that hunt. No longer of the city, the familiar cultivated response to my daily environment is useless. My romantic dream of being part of earth and forest are just words written on a page in my journal. Senses claim their original nature. Instincts are resurrected, heightened awareness keeps sleep at bay. Afraid of the unseen cloaked by the night I consider taking refuge in sleep seeking its protection and a numbing of my fears. No I will not sleep and determine to stay awake, keep my eyes open, to survive the night. All the while telling myself my fear is irrational.
Hearing a cacophony of noise I begin to sort the night hum into individual sounds; a pine cone falling, the frightened snort of a mule deer followed by the sound of its hoofs cascading down the mountain slope, the scent of a skunk alerting me to its quiet steps through the runoff crevices, the hoot of an owl followed by a silent shadow flying into the dark recesses of the trees, movement of air, trees bending with the breeze, others standing still, silent strong sentinels bearing witness. I hear the night sounds of tree inhabitants: squirrels, chipmunks and birds shifting in their nests. I see the the coming and going of moonlit clouds and watch the ground beings, bugs and crawlers move across my mound of earth. The more I notice the less afraid I am.
Fear of the unknown is replaced with a strong desire to understand my surroundings. I will never know everything there is to know about this mountain meadow, this aspen and pine forest and yet I am yearning to know, to experience the life of this place. A long buried desire beats in my heart, the place of childlike wonder: the desire to know all my relations as family, as life companions.
A long buried desire beats in my heart, the place of childlike wonder…
My blanket keeps small pebbles, grains of soil away from my naked body. If I move the fold of the blanket opens and dirt sifts into my wool cocoon. I look longingly at my jeans and flannel shirt folded neatly next to my pack. Taking a deep breath I quiet my body. My only movement is the rise and fall of my chest. Gradually I relax into this earth borrow. I feel myself turning with the earth. I am not moving across the earth or sitting sill in one place, but turning.
Small beings the size of squirrels, chipmunks, skunks walk across the mound of earth that covers me. I am moving with the earth, part of earth. I turn like the earth and the knowledge that this has always been so awakens ancestral spiritual and genetic memory, my body as earth is remembered. Stars, the moon, do not move across the sky, the earth turns and they pass from my vision. We are all moving as one and yet each of us has our own journey. Primal instincts held in my blood and bone move into my heart and mind. I am the forest, the earth. I am of the the wild. The cultivation of my city life, my schooling, the chatter of memorized information is useless in this moment.
In the darkness held by mother earth I feel joy, I am calm, inner turmoil, internal chatter of life story is stilled. I am turning in a sacred manner with all the inhabitants of this mountain.
I lie awake the rest of the night.
First light the birds sing their morning greetings. I am still, filled with wonder and peace. Sunrise, I emerge from my cocoon, put on my clothes and bask in the warm sun. I will sleep today and wait for the night.
I spend a second night wrapped in blanket and earth. I do not wait for the sun to rise but eagerly unbury myself at first light. My body is stiff and I long for cooked food and a soft bed. I begin to prepare to return, to walk down the mountain to my tent. Then a strong all too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach brings me to my knees. I swallow bile as old memories of regret, unfinished tasks move through my mind and body. It is not time to leave. I am not yet done. I am afraid and bored. I want comfort and the familiar. I laugh. I will stay another day, another night. I begin to walk around leaving the meadow following animal trails, touching bark and leaves, examining scat, noticing what it contains: fur, berries, bits of bone. I smell everything and move as quietly as I can. My tennis shoes squeak so I walk barefooted. My feet become sensitive to touch, temperature and the texture of the ground I walk on. This tells me a little about how often the sun shines on a particular spot or trail, how water drains where it pools and what begins to live in that pool. Footprints around a puddle of water tell me who comes to drink. I do not know who they are by name but I know their print. Their size I wonder about. In one place a big print in mud becomes quite small as it walks on a sunbaked trail. I wish I’d brought my journal so I could take notes and look all this up when I get back home to my books, my computer, my library. My mind wonders and I give myself projects for a later time. I am preoccupied with leaving this mountain. Carefully I mark my path so I can find my way back to the meadow and the trail that leads to the campsite.
The animal trail curves and intersects with a forest service road. I am delighted and take my tennis shoes dangling from shoestrings around my neck and put them on. I feel companionship with other humans who have carved this road and traveled it many times over the years. Tire tracks leave well worn ruts. I feel comfortable to be back in a small part of human inroads into the forest. Trees cut to clear the road lay rotting along the road’s edge. A bull snake slithers from under one of the logs. I am excited to see it and happy I know what kind of snake it is. I still walk as quietly as possible out of respect for the inhabitants of this place. I know I am a visitor. Being on the road lulls me into a sense of security, of safety. I quit paying attention to all life around me and stroll like a child in a park. The road construction has carved part of the hillside away. On one side is a 8 to 10 foot high ragged ridge where tree roots have been exposed, their tops teetering waiting for a strong wind to uproot them.
Something changes and my breath comes in quick shallow pants. My skin is covered with goose bumps. I sense danger. I do not question this feeling. Out of the corner of my eye I see movement. Turning my head ever so slightly I see a mountain lion walking on top of the ridge. It is watching me, moving quietly, half crouched, stalking me. I wonder if it is in striking distance. I know it doesn’t matter; with its speed it could move close enough to pounce. I am prey. There is no doubt. It is considering taking my life. Slowly and deliberately I walk to the farthest side of the forest road. I do not look back, but walk with deliberate steps. I will not run. I pace the large cat’s state, moving with deliberation, feeling each step and quietly breathing. I am afraid and my fear guides my steps knowing that I must be as present and aware as I can be. There is no time for a gathering of my mind. I can do nothing but walk with calm and move slowly doing my best to put distance between us. The mountain lion could shorten that distance in a moment, but it is all I can do. I am afraid to die, to be mauled, maimed. I put this thought aside. I walk and I am still living. Each step is precious, each breath is precious. I feel exhilarated, adrenaline is rushing through my body. If the lion lunges bringing my body to the ground the result will be severe injury or death.
I walk and I am still living. Each step is precious, each breath is precious.
I must meet that moment although I feel there is little I can do to change the outcome. Moments pass and I begin to feel the mountain lion’s state, its presence has changed. The connection between us is fading. I still do not look back but continue to walk on the opposite side of the road. I consider going off the road and hiding in the woods and almost laugh out loud at the uselessness of this action. I walk until I do not feel the mountain lion’s presence and then quietly turn and scan the ridge. Is it gone? Perhaps not, but it is not stalking me. I continue to walk. Minutes have passed and I stop just standing on the side of the road. I can continue to follow this road to some unknown destination hoping to find another human or I can retrace my steps back to the meadow. I decide to return. With each step I am present. I watch, smell, listen and feel. I feel a voice inside of me and I start to sing and sing and sing. The lion knows I’m here and no sense in hiding. I pick up two sticks and beat the rhythm of my chants. If I am going to die, be mauled, I’ll meet it head on. No more looking away. I will look into the eyes of the one who stalked me. I walk this way until I am back at the meadow. My whole body is sensing as if I have tentacles surrounding me, feeling, smelling, watching, listening and touching all life around me. Every tree I pass I reach out to, the earth and I pulsate together, the birds and I sing together. I stop to pee several times leaving my scent. I feel good about doing this.
I reach the meadow and feel safe. I have a relationship with this place. Spoken in prayer and felt in my heart this meadow and I have bonded. My memory of danger is fresh. I could have died. I tell myself that I could die in the city. Lots of reasons that most of us think about: car accident, a crime or an illness that is moving through the dense population. I live with those possibilities but I do not live with the raw danger of a wild being whose home is where I walked today, where I will sleep tonight. The direct involvement with a being that can take my life without malice, with focused intention inan act of survival, awakens my instincts dormant just minutes before. Seldom do I pray for protection or give thanks in the city, but now my tears flowing I pray. I give thanks for my life and for this sanctuary of the meadow, the companionship of all the life that I have been a part of the last days. I give thanks for the life of the mountain lion and its decision to not eat me. I weep uncontrollably. Knowledge born of experience begins to reside in my psyche, my mind. Words will come later. After a while I know that being present must be part of my life in this wild, natural setting. Intellectually I know this can be part of my life in the city but it has not been. The human tribe brings me a sense of safety, and I have learned to navigate with discernment, avoid injury or death by just knowing how to take care of myself. I have few skills in this natural setting. If I am to be part of a forest, a desert or forge a stream I must know how to take care of myself. I need my teacher to show me the way, but most of all I need to be present and learn from my surroundings. My teacher had told the inhabitants of this mountain that he was entrusting me to their care. He asked for their help teaching me. He asked them to share their home and entrusted my safe keeping to them. He thanked them by offering tobacco. I did not bring tobacco although I know of the custom. I do not know tobacco. Plucking some hairs from my head I offer those and ask for the companionship of all life that lives in this forest. I asked for their protection and gave thanks for my life and theirs. Perhaps the prayers have reached the mountain lion. My romantic dreams are gradually being replaced with faith. The faith that communication with other species, invisible spirits and the elements is possible, always has been and always will be. I feel the truth of this but know so little.
I stay another night. I fill my borrow with care and make an effort to leave this piece of earth as much like it was when I found it. I sit wrapped in my blanket. I pray for all life around me, I pray for my life. I feel the air, the movement, I stay awake bringing my wondering mind back over and over. I feel the earth I sit upon, I feel my body, I feel.
The next day I return to my tent. It is as I left it. I pack up feeling anxious to be on my way. On the drive to my teacher’s I buy a little camp shovel, small ax and some split wood. I check my oil, windshield washer fluid, antifreeze, my jack and my spare tire. I do not know how to tell if my spare is in good shape. I want to buy some loose tobacco to give my teacher, but the store only has cigarettes. I buy a pack and a bandana. I fill the bandana with the tobacco from the cigarettes.
It is twilight when I arrive and he is standing on his porch. He knew I was coming. I get out of my car, open the trunk and smile. He laughs as he sees the shovel, the ax and the wood. “The wood is for you.”
“Thank you,” he says, “good medicine.” On the porch he sits in a rickety old chair and I sit on the wood step. I offer him the tobacco. He accepts it as the most valuable gift he has ever received.
Tears in my eyes I ask, “Will you be my teacher?”
He smiles, “You did good sister.”