Books are Elders

“Books are Elders…” that’s something we say at my Wilderness Awareness School community. It means that in the ancestors’ times people would go to elders for answers about the names of creatures and plants living among them, knowledge of the movements of stars and the rivers and winds, the world past and a compass for the world waiting ahead. But now, we sometimes to not have elders close to us, or if we do they might not know these things anymore… so we use field guides. Field guides are more than a collection of pretty pictures and scientific information about species. They are the most underrated products of compact real-life magic we can carry with us. Think of field guides as your “spell books” when you go looking for your non-human relatives. The information contained in these marvelous books and pocket guides (and smart phone apps!) guides us to know about the real imminent lives of our relative species, whom by extension we share our human lives with. We can be better relatives to them by knowing who they are and how they live. By these guides, we know their names, and speak their names and ways, and keep the memories and knowledge of them imprinted inside us, so that we may someday pass along this knowledge of relationship to generations yet to come. This work of so many scientists, field researches, citizen enthusiasts, anthropologists, and others may yet be among the most important links from the monumental deep knowledge of hunter-gatherer cultures into a renewed future for humans on earth. Remember that the word spell has two meanings: to spell a word, and to cast a spell. Can you see how they are related? See how knowing, speaking and remembering the names of our relative creatures helps us do real magic by taking this knowledge into us as living wells of relationship.

 

An Art of its Own Kind: Nature, Embodiment and Human Wellness

 

There is an intersection between a relationship with the natural environment and human health. This relationship, or lack of it, critically affects the lives of individuals and society at large. Interconnectedness is the immense single web of life of which all aspects of wellbeing are closely interwoven.

There is an ongoing cultural problem of defining health by purely physical measures. Yet that very physicality, in our modern culture, often lacks a depth of integrity, of basic body-awareness, emotional intelligence or relationship with nature. In other words, our obsession with the physical realm of life is, paradoxically, alarmingly anti-physical. It does not honor the body’s animalian or emotional component, which brings the motivating joy to feeling fully alive in a body in the first place. It is the obsession of a disembodied mind.

How many advertisements for thinness, for macho-muscular athleticism, for food are we dumped with? Yet this type of overemphasis on physical appearances without feeling only further dulls and disconnects us from the native beauty of our animal bodies. We are separated from the delight of our bodies by outrageous expectations and internalized shame, to please a distant standard while draining ourselves. This is not helped by the problem of philosophical traditionalists telling us that the physical body is not as sanctified as the severed Cartesian mind floating in it’s enlightened glass jar of “higher” reason. The West has an old problem here. We are disassociated from the liveliness of our own physicality.

Ecopsychology, nature-based education and rewilding help to heal that. No wonder we don’t want to “exercise” when the dominant cultural understanding we have of exercise is a race to get thin or muscular for no other real end than looking a certain way. We expect that if we are to feel differently from “working out”, it will be a satisfaction at having conquered our bodies, as if our bodies were an enemy to be dominated in war. This masculinist, warring, domineering attitude toward our bodies has left a trail of carcasses. We think that getting “in shape” will not be to love and care for ourselves more completely, but to control and rule.

No wonder it is so uninviting to exercise when the very idea of it feels, to so many people, like a task to wearily get done with that is separate from everything else we do. The problem of exercise being separate from the rest of normal life is a problem society has never had before these modern times. In days before the prevalence of sedentary office jobs, daily labor was often physical, exercise happened without worrying about it, and medically-dangerous morbid obesity was extremely rare.

In David Abrams’ remarkable book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abrams tells the story of young Vincent Van Gogh’s reawakening to the sensual, embodied world, and how this infused life into his paintings.

Although his first career was that of a preacher, Vincent’s passion could not contain itself in that stance, denying his body while straining toward a beauty beyond the visible; it fell back into the world. And at that moment, as his intellectual faith in a truth beyond the sensuous fell away, he found himself abruptly caught up and carried by a faith more implacable than any mere belief: the human body’s ancient and inexhaustible faith in the breathing earth, in the whispering leaves, in the meandering river and the night and the goodness of the sun. His senses burst open like sunflowers scattering their seeds: he began to paint the surging world. In Vincent Van Gogh’s canvases there is nothing that is not alive. (Abrams 50)

If a returning to bodily senses so ignited Van Gogh’s paintings with vivacity, how much more would it empower we who struggle to embody beauty in our physicality? Rebuilding a relationship with our bodies is an art of its own kind. Mental health is directly related to physical health. How exactly the relationship manifests is diverse from person to person, but the relationship is undeniably there. Physical movement relieves depression: laughter welling up in the airways tickles the body. Sunlight seeps through the shade surrounding our minds. Access to nature makes whole the human animal. In the words of psychotherapist Friedrich Salomon Perls, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

Nature’s role in physical and mental health need not be explicitly rural. Many of us do not live near to majestic national parks. Some of us are lucky to have a car to get out of the city we live in. For others, the call is to find Great Nature, as the Shinto religion speaks of it, in the sparkling and waving of trees along sidewalks, in city parks, in the air in your lungs, or the warm pulse (and impulse) of your own body. We are not fundamentally separate from nature or nature’s ability to heal.

Izanami is the Japanese goddess of creation and death. She is similar to India’s more well-known Kali. Izanami is a Dark Mother archetype, who’s way of bringing life is through transformative death. She eats, with the fangs of the earth, everything which is contrary to ultimate life and wholeness so that it will be destroyed to make way for regeneration. Dark Mother medicine is timely for dealing with the grief, frustration, stagnancy, pain, disconnect, toxicity and amnesia of the worst aspects of modern life which make us chronically unwell. Perhaps ironically to the message of liveliness, Izanami often takes the form of a corpse. Mythologically, there is rhyme and reason here; look again, more closely. She divinely mocks an obsession with appearances, for she reveals to us the seriousness of accepting our own mortal physicality. She compels us to be at peace with having animal bodies which are intimately bound with the cycle of life and death, birth and decay in the earth. We mark our lives as preciously short. Dark Mother destroys illusions of perfection, destroys the damaging praise of disembodiment, of health in appearances only. She is a fiercely female, earthly, embodied force of reckoning.

The next time we “exercise”, let’s be kids again. Run and play for the pure joy of it, be hilarious, forget expectations. And if a strange sadness arises and the play doesn’t feel immediately exuberant as it once did, know that such pain is natural, too. Even the frustration is held within the Great Nature of animal life. We have lost something, but we can find it again.

 

Sources

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press, 1951.

Cartwright, Mark. “Izanami and Izanami.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. December 6, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Izanami_and_Izanagi/.

 

 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Here

Get a yard           grab a lot
one in the middle of a shitty city
with the wrong kind of death.
Fight the system to get some space
a bit of land        to love, to call your own
fuck the permit
just go sit in that place
and do something radical       –like listen
and remember that you are an animal
here with the ones with paws,
with claws, with wings
not too different from your own,
the ones you have in dreams.
Listen to Them who speak to you
in love-words of remembrance, words of power
in the city. And when you rise and go
take power with you,
and go into the city
the city of shatters
and you go be water and land
for the people of all species.
Bring the good word to the people
starting with Here.

 

 

Image © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.

Sacred Camouflage

 

Last night I slept out at Valley of the Rogue State Park in southern Oregon, a place of merry adventure as the handsome name implies. That land has particular sentiment to me, the first place my tribal outdoor school camps as it caravans to the south every February, the expanse of the arid wilds under the milky way mountains. Setting up camp alone on this night, I turned away from the flickering lights of the unknown travelers and chose instead the dark, unoccupied place where my friends and I laid seven months previous. People have a way of leaving the scent of their spirit like a loving ghost in the lands they pass through.

The night was drawing down as I pulled in to pay. Clouds were rapidly gathering though the night lingered at 68 degrees fahrenheit. I set up my tarp and sleeping bag between a grove of low hanging conifers, Doug Fir and Incense Cedar. My tarp is brown, brown as the ground, blending in. Alone without light I swallow a portion of food and water and I lay down, satisfied and free in my element.

I have become more of a scout than I realize. I awaken soon to a bright artificial light illuminating my tarp in its shadows, hearing the nearby voices of two bewildered men, “Where is she? Not in that tiny car, but there’s no tent!” It was the rangers come around to check the sites for payment. I was invisible in my low brown tarp and sparse conifer grove behind a barricade of Manzanita. After basking in amusement a moment I revealed myself to their relief and humbled apologies.

A few weeks ago, on a night after acting in a scouting scenario for the teens at their overnight camp, I was walking back down to my yurt. There are no street lights in this rural and wooded neighborhood, but starlight lit the path around me. At once a car came speeding down the drive, approaching too quickly, and I knew they could not see me on the road in the darkness. Without thinking I dove into the thicket beside the road to avoid getting run over, hoping also to avoid being seen jumping off the road so comedically. I can feel the surprising speed and grace of that moment as I think back on it, the fluid rush of right movement without stopping to think, allowing my instincts to take over bodily coordination, right hand lifting the hem of my cloak over my face to conceal my identity, like a polar bear covering it’s black nose in the snow. I rolled aside from the road with an unexpected, effortless lightness of body, and I became small and unseen as the behemoth lights sped past.

“And you were comfortable in it, too,” Grandma pointed out when I told her the story.

That light, it was a kind of darkness, whereas the natural darkness became my light by which I saw. In wilderness scouting, the night becomes a cloak of belonging. Like an animal you become fluid with the day and the night, a member of both elements in a sacred way.

 

 

Journal entry from September 3rd, 2013

 

 

image source: pixabay license

A Viking Funeral for a Vole

Favorite summer camp moment: the kids in my group at St. Ed’s Art of Nature find a tiny dead vole (a meadow mouse), and after examining it’s feet for tracking curiosities, we decide it needs a proper funeral. I plant the idea of a Viking funeral at sea and tell them to fetch a piece of bark for a boat. They then spend an hour cooperatively decorating this elaborate little boat of curled bark the size of my forearm. They gingerly cover the vole with Hemlock needles and a yellow leaf, and surround the corpse with blue pebbles, cones and “blackberries to feed it’s spirit in the next life” (!) with a great golden Big Leaf Maple leaf as a rudder and sail. The “pyre” is set. We ship it out to sea on Lake Washington: it floats a stone’s throw from us, and slowly sinks. I say, “Oh, look, he’s going to the Underworld!” and we all sing the Canoe Song in unison. Which was so cute I could hardly bear it. Made my week.

 

 

image source: Creative Commons CC0

A New Kind of Top Predator

 

Walking out to my sit spot last night in the dark, I listen to what is around me, and what is in me. An excitement and subtle fear surfaces, and I ask myself what I am afraid of. Of course the dark is still spooky. But I am one of the top predators, I assure myself. My back straightens. The Big Cat and I have a treatise to keep our distance. We are equally terrified of each other, and for that, we have sworn to not see each other as prey. Then another thought, one that makes me weak in the knees for the love of it, like a treasure remembered. I turn my face upward to the lighter ribbon of starry sky through the canopy, and I know that I have been given a great gift, a birthright. I am of that species of top predator, the only of its kind, who has the ability to choose it’s actions compassionately, to employ forethought and empathy in my predation. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, my species currently rules the whole world, and not often with our better selves. But we can choose: that is what sets us apart. A feeling of entwined humility and power came through me, and I was thankful, and at peace.

 

Photo by Unsplash. Public Domain. Pixabay.com

What Wild Is

 

Starting out on a wander across a bridge

that sways under feet, between gravity and air

you meet Northern Flicker. You stop,

body posed in mid-step like an animal;

you and the bird look into each other’s eyes.

He stands on the ground, flees from your burning gaze.

You straighten your beautiful back and walk on.

Like the river you now part the meadow,

rose-hips and brambles surround us.

I take note of the names given the flora

by Man in the garden– Thimbleberry and Alder.

Again your hand sweeps the grass to one side,

serpent of rushes, apple light falling over your face.

Is this what wild is? Coming onto

the riverbank, sandy pebbles,

a spiral made with blue stones.

Some come to be warriors.

Some come to love.

You leap up on a log.

 

 

 

 

image source: Creative Commons CC0

On the Porch at Cedar Lodge

Written for the closing week of Anake Outdoor School, 2013.

 

On Linne Doran land,          the Otter-Pond,
beside Cottonwoods           with heart-shaped leaves,
water-wood,                        and Cedars somber with
their overhanging eaves.    “Look at the light
on the Cottonwoods,”          the dancing-fire trees,
you speak from where         we sit at sunset
smoking on the porch.         Night breeze.
This is plenty seeing you     like a human,
talking quiet, no pretense,   no display.
“Did you see                        the Lagomorph
who went that way?”           The same hand gesturing
toward the ferocious green  of vernal mire
that instructs, that holds      my bee-stung arm
in tender reassurance.         “I have the gift
of tears,” I say.                     “My heart is tired.”

Someday,                             I’ll be sitting in full sun
and remembering                 that blanket of dusk:
the unnamable places,         initiation,
re-welcoming, the whole      in-between world
we could not                         have expected.
Animal voices                       from beyond the woodshed
and ravine, laughter             down the path to where
we gather in Malalo              for magic, wrapping the bundle,
burning,                                being seen.

I know you love                    this time of night,
the silhouettes of trees,        the ones that tip their tops,
that spread their branches   out like praise,
their differences of ways      discernible from a distance,
one more lesson                  in vision, but there is
black sleep                           creeping in now,
flowers are closing,              ferns keep unfurling
as they should,                     as is right in time,
in Nature’s time.                   But this is natural.
This cannot be planned.      Active hearts are tired hearts,
dirt-time for elderhood.        The way of the Scout
is to take no credit               even where credit is due.
Respect, Honor and Love.  The veil lifts.
Something more                  than what we signed up for
comes through.

 

 

 

 

Image © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.

The Sign of the World

 

They move in unison across the landscape
separating their bodies but remaining one mind.
Now and again their minds are one.

Paint-blue storms from the sea call down the power,
flicker-snow flower as the sun parts the big arc
of the firmament and you’re surrounded on all sides,
baby eyes seeing, skin breathing, doe ears perked,
the long learning of grace and a large understanding:
love sacrifice and how the spring waters flow from it.

Warm fire, imagination. Cool, white heat.
Vision forever and ever.

True light goes where it wills,
recalls in it’s old smiles the first day
it seeped through the tan canyons,
caressed the green hills.
Now I am sure we are back at that first day for a moment.

I saw the grieving crowned with laurel and cedar,
the scent of sage and your sweet sweat in the mountains.
I heard a melodious sound on both sides of the night gate.
I saw bodies whole, our own bodies at play and at peace
and the stars all wheeled in their way overhead.
I felt the hands of a child bring to me the stag’s antler,
I saw the sign of the world in turtle tracks in the cool mud,
I saw ravens barrel-roll on the blue hem of heaven,
I awakened to the caravan’s laughter and water, fish in deep water,
I saw the sun called up by a father with heart and fire,
I heard a violin in the Juniper thicket.

Everywhere your face is clear to me,
whose lovely name is known by the mountains,
whose generations live in your being
from song into form into life.

I give my hands with yours to make the bread of the world,
cure for the sick, the heart that is restless for home.

Move through the woods and arroyos with beauty and grace
all my people, all one.
All souls are one.

 

Written for Anake Outdoor School of Wilderness Awareness School class of 2012-2013, The Awakening Otter Tribe, at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm, Cuyama, California, February 2013

 

Image © Gentle J. Pine. All rights reserved.