Falling into the West

WheelTomorrow is the first day of October. The fall equinox has passed. The wheel has definitely turned from summer to fall, from South to West. The four shields model of working with nature and psyche has much to teach us, and enticing doorways of exploration to offer through the West.

To place the West in the context of a wheel, picture that the North is at the top of the wheel. Then moving clockwise, East is at the right of the wheel. Continuing clockwise, South is at the bottom of the wheel, and the West is at the left side.

Each direction has different qualities associated with it. Are these qualities inherent Wheel with colours of the four directionsto the direction? I would say sometimes they are not, though often they seem to be. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the North is ultimately the direction of the North Pole, which is white with ice and snow. At least it will be for a while longer, I hope. So to associate white with the North makes sense. But in the southern hemisphere, it would make more sense to associate white with the South, because in the South is the icy South Pole and Antarctica.

The East is associated with the colour yellow, which makes sense when you consider the sun rising in the East. Similarly, the West is associated with the colour black, in part because the sun sinks below the horizon in the West, causing darkness to fall. The South is associated with the colour red, and there are reasons for this as well, which I will discuss another day.

Dagara cosmological wheelThe interesting thing about the colours is that peoples from all over the world have devised systems similar to the four shields, including the medicine wheel of the North American plains peoples and the wheel cosmology of the Dagara people of Africa, and they choose the primary colours of the earth and sky—red, black or blue, white, yellow, green—although they may place the colours in different directions of the wheel.

Returning to the question of whether the directions have qualities inherent in them, I have come to view the four shields and other models as ways of organizing and working with aspects of reality, including the outer world and our inner nature. The four shields can be used as a tool for contemplation and understanding, just as the I ching, runes, tarot cards, and many other tools can help us look at an issue in our life and see something new.

Over the next few postings I will be exploring more qualities of the West with you. I invite you to join in an exploration of the West.

Is that a wolf?

Cowboys, dogs, and dirtbikers: visitors to Monkey Valley

You might be noticing that all of these invaders of my privacy are men. Men who break the law and ignore the postings I have put up every 20 to 50 meters around the perimeter of the property. But one time there was a non-human male visitor, and he was so sweet!

I had some friends up for New Year’s Eve a few winters ago. One night after dinner my friend Dorrie was sitting on the porch, legs dangling into space, looking out at the night. I was inside supervising Keith and Marvin while they did the dishes. Suddenly I heard a faint warbled “Help!” I heard it again: “Help!”

Is that a wolf?I ran to the door and opened it a crack, and a very large creature was standing there looking at me. “Are you a wolf?” I asked. It was greyish, and big, but the tail was wagging a little. The soul of the animal did not feel harmful, but at the same time I didn’t know this creature, it might be a wolf, and Dorrie was scared!

I chased the animal off the porch, and Dorrie came inside. We all talked about what had happened, and looked outside, but the animal was gone. Not for long though. The next day he was back. He turned out to be a very large friendly dog.

I fed him some cat food and vegetarian scraps, which he ate. He had a very thick coat, and seemed okay with staying outside. Over the next few days I became very fond of this sweet fellow. I wondered if the universe was sending me a present for the new year, a new family member. Although I hadn’t had any intention of getting a dog, I was turning over the possibility of keeping him.

However, I also thought I’d better try to find the owner. I called both vets in Merritt, and they suggested I also contact the Humane Society in Princeton. I did, and soon I got a phone call from the dog’s human family, very happy to find their dog was still alive.

It turned out that he lived in the community at the east end of Missezula Lake. On New Year’s Eve there were a lot of fireworks, and he got scared and ran away. Somehow he found his way to my land, and came to the house. He obviously trusted people, and I learned that he was friends with all the people in his community.

Perhaps this is the lesson this beautiful soul brought into my life. That people can be trusted, and will help when we are lost and alone in the cold.

Invasion by air and land

Cowboys, dogs, and dirtbikers: visitors to Monkey Valley

Privacy is something I savor, and my need for it is probably stronger than most peoples’. No TrespassingIt is amazing to me how often my privacy has been impinged upon at Monkey Valley. One time I was skinny dipping in the creek, as I described in another posting. What I didn’t mention was that as soon as I got out, buck naked except for my shoes, an airplane flew low overhead, directly above where I was standing with water dripping off me. I yelled out “Give me some fucking privacy, you assholes!” but they probably didn’t hear me.

Another time I was down at the medicine wheel, doing the sacred ceremony of walking the wheel, when I heard an engine. This is not uncommon, as there is a campground a couple miles away, as the crow flies, and campers sometimes bring their dirt bikes and explore the logging roads around Monkey Valley. But this sounded closer at hand. I looked up, and sure enough, there was someone on a dirt bike driving on the old dirt road on the other side of the creek.

I yelled “Get off my land!” but the rider didn’t hear. So I ran up the valley towards the house, big stick in hand, prepared to confront the trespasser. But I guess that once he came to the part of the road that offers a view of the house across the valley he realized he was trespassing at someone’s home, and he turned around and left. It was so strange to watch this happening while the trespasser was completely unaware of my presence.

I went to inspect the part of the fence where the biker came through. There were No Trespassing signs on either side of a new barbed wire gate that some loggers had put in after cutting the fence open for access. Note to self: Put lock on gate. I did, and to my knowledge there haven’t been any vehicular trespassers on my land since then.

Hunters crawled under the fence

Cowboys, dogs, and dirtbikers: unexpected visitors to Monkey Valley

As remote as it is, you might be Stop killing the deersurprised to hear the unexpected visitors I’ve had at Monkey Valley. One time I was coming back from a run to the 5 KM marker—a favourite out-and-back route that takes about 45 minutes—and found two men in hunters’ gear on the wrong side of the fence at the top gate. They were standing behind the signs that said No Hunting and No Trespassing. Luckily I was feeling strong and confident with all the blood charging around my body from the run, so I grilled them, beginning with:

“Can you read?”

They claimed they could, but gave a lame excuse about wanting to look at the valley. One man tried to charm me by saying “It’s beautiful land you’ve got here.”

One had a bow and arrow and wanted to shoot a deer. The other one had a gun in case a bear came across them while the other one was shooting at deer. It turns out they were from Vancouver. Living out some kind of woodsman fantasy about hunting with a bow and arrow.

I made them crawl back under the fence on their bellies.

This is the place for a discussion of grown men shooting defenceless animals. Why do they want to do this? When I see the rows of hunting magazines in the grocery store in Merritt it makes me feel sick. All the covers have pictures of men standing smiling over the corpses of the animals they’ve killed. What is wrong with people?

I think all hunting of wild animals should be banned, except in the cases of people who have a hunting-gathering lifestyle and this is how they feed their families. And how many hunter-gatherers do you know? Probably NONE. Men from the cities, towns, and ranches who come into the wilderness to kill something to make themselves feel manly should just get over themselves and go see a therapist. The time for hunting is long over.

Cowboys rode up to the gate

Douglas Lake cowCowboys, dogs, and dirtbikers: unexpected visitors to Monkey Valley

The Douglas Lake Cattle Company has the grazing rights for the land all around Monkey Valley. So it is not really surprising that I’ve seen quite a few cows—and a fair number of bulls, too—but that’s another story. It was a real thrill one August morning to see a couple of cowboys, who rode up to the gate to let me know they were bringing the cattle in to graze the piece of land on the other side of the fence. They were on horses, and wore cowboy hats and jingling spurs. Real cowboys!

Kurt was about 15, and the other one, whose name I’ve forgotten, was possibly in his 60s. They were real polite and friendly, and invited me to come visit the cow camp where they all stay for the summer. I never did go, but maybe one year. Now and then over the years I have seen their trucks and horse trailers parked beside the road, when they are in the process of moving cattle from one area to another. In the spring the cows are turned out to graze at low elevations where the snow has melted, and they gradually move higher into the mountains as the summer goes on. In the fall they move back down again. The workers at the cow camp move the cows around, and tend to injured cows and calves as well.

~* Oh, the life of a cowboy is lonely… Campfires and beans, and bitter dark coffee… *~

It’s a way of life that has been romanticized in the movies, and settlers in BC have been raising cattle for up to 120 years. I led a Northwest Earth Institute discussion group on sustainability in Merritt in 2006, and we talked about the kind of land in this area and what food sources it will support. According to one of the participants, whose family has been ranching in this area for decades, the land around Merritt is dry and hilly and supports cattle grazing on the grass but would not be suitable for growing soybeans. I respect her point of view, and think she’s probably right.

However, much of the land on earth that is suited to growing crops and diverse plant life has been razed for cattle grazing to supply us with cheap beef. We’ve all heard from people like John Seed’s Rainforest Rescue organization about how a large percentage of the earth’s rainforests have been burned to the ground. Here’s a plea from Matthew Fox, author of Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth, from the chapter of the same name in The Soul of Nature (p. 214):

«Today we need to have ecological virtues. For example, vegetarianism or semi-vegetarianism is an ecological virtue. There is no longer any excuse for a human being in the so-called first world not questioning his or her amount of consumption of meat. In fact, if North Americans alone were to cut back just ten per cent in their meat consumption, sixty million humans would eat today who were starving. The amount of land, water, and grain we are using to feed an addictive meat habit is simply unsustainable in our time.»

This is one reason the Monkey Valley Retreat Centre serves vegetarian food.

Saturday morning cookies at Monkey Valley

Karen\'s chocolate brownie cookiesI woke up this sunny morning with a yen for chocolate cookies… for breakfast. With a cup of decaf… served on the porch.

The wonderful thing about Saturday mornings is there’s time for indulging such fantasies. So I got out the silver mixing bowls and baking sheet, and the delightful measuring cups and spoons of all different sizes, made of white plastic. These things must conjure up sweet memories from childhood, for I feel happy whenever I see them. I gathered ingredients from their various hiding places: the mouse-proof wood chest in the hallway where I keep dry goods, the top shelf of the cupboard, the fridge.

Now, as a single person usually living alone, if I bake cookies it’s me who’s going to eat them all! I still usually make a full batch, but today I was limited by the Earth Balance Whipped Buttery Spread—I only had about ¼ cup, plus a little extra for greasing the sheet. So there was no option but to make half a batch, and hope they would last long enough!

Here’s the recipe for the full batch; you can see it’s an easy one to cut in half.

Karen’s chocolate brownie cookies (*Adapted from The Joy of Cooking’s quick oatmeal cookies*)

Sift together:My mom gave me this book when I first moved out from home—long before the 1997 edition!

  • 1 c sifted whole wheat flour
  • ½ t salt
  • ½ t baking soda
  • ½ t baking powder
  • ½ t cinnamon
  • 4 T (heaping) cocoa powder

In a separate bowl cream together:

  • ½ c Whipped Buttery Spread (or other margarine or butter) + 1 extra T because it’s whipped
  • ½ c brown sugar, packed
  • ½ c white sugar

When smooth, mix in:

  • 1 egg (try to use a small egg if making a ½ batch)
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 1 T rice milk (or milk or soy milk)

Turn on the oven to 350°. For me anyway, this is plenty soon enough to start preheating the oven!

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, mixing until smooth. Mix in:

  • 1 c quick cooking oats

Mix in:

  • ¾ chopped walnuts

Drop the cookie dough onto a well-greased baking sheet, in lumps of about 2 T or a little more. A dozen should fit on most baking sheets.

Bake for 10 minutes. While the cookies are baking, make a cup of coffee, wash up the dishes, and take your vitamins.

Remove from the oven, and let set for 1 minute. Remove to a plate to eat immediately(!) or to cool further. Store in an airtight container to keep the soft chewy texture.


– icing sugar instead of white sugar; the resulting texture is slightly softer, very good.
– spelt flakes instead of oats; these cook up slightly more chewy than the oats
– omit cocoa and use raisins or dried cherries instead of nuts

Basically, most substitutions will turn out well with this simple, adaptable recipe.

The final step is to take 3 or 4 cookies outside, along with a cup of coffee, and enjoy this incredibly yummy treat in the sunshine on the porch overlooking the creek and meadow.

And that’s exactly what I did!

Soapberry Indian ice cream

Indian ice cream—a gift from the land

BC Nicola Valley soapberriesAt the August vision fast at Monkey Valley, the spot where our council circle met had some translucent reddish-orange berries that looked very succulent. I licked one and found it to be very bitter. The faster asked what they were, but I didn’t know, and didn’t even recall seeing this type of berry before. After the faster went out on her two-day quest, I looked up the berries in Roberta Parish, Ray Coupe, and Dennis Lloyd’s Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. I discovered they are soapberries. I remembered that my friend Pam told me soapberries are the stuff Indian ice cream is made of.

While the faster was out, my co-guide Kim Ashley (a Soapberry Indian ice creamdifferent Kim than my sister, Kim Rempel) and I decided to try making the ice cream. We gathered the berries in the traditional method, by spreading a cloth on the ground and then beating the bush with a stick! (Following the instructions in Nancy Turner’s Food Plants of Interior First Peoples.) But we used electric beaters, not so traditional, to whip the berries with a little water into a beautiful pink foam. We didn’t have the traditional whipping implement—a piece of cedar bark—on hand. The mixture was still quite bitter even with brown sugar and a few wild raspberries added. An unusual but interesting taste. The whipped foamy texture is wonderful—a real treat.

This treat was part of the welcome-back-break-fast feast. It was really neat, to offer the faster some food gathered from the land. It strengthened the feeling that the spirits of this place welcome us doing the old sacred ceremonies here. Ho!


Mix 1 cup berries with 1/4 cup water and 4 tablespoons brown sugar, until all the berries have dissolved into a stiff pink foam.

Vision quest—maintaining sacred tradition

Cultural misappropriation of sacred ceremony

Cultural misappropriation is a danger in adopting Evelyn Eaton's The Shaman and the Medicine Wheeltraditional ceremonies for contemporary use. It is true that peoples on every continent have used solo time in nature for spiritual purposes. It is a human birthright—a way of connecting directly to the natural world and to deeper realms of spiritual realities. Yet so much has been taken from the first peoples of North America, and there have been incidents of anger about Caucasian groups using first peoples customs. Even in cases where a white person has been trained and given permission by a Native American medicine man, such as in the case of author and medicine woman Evelyn Eaton, others in Native American communities have disagreed and been angry with those who allow white participation in their traditional Native American ceremonies such as the pipe ceremony and sweat lodge.

What to do? How to navigate this territory of cultural misappropriation? Certainly, when using or adapting traditional first people ways, it is vitally important to do so with respect and with honouring of the first peoples of the land where we do sacred ceremony, and with thanks for the teachings we have received. The School of Lost Borders, which teaches a modern vision fast rite of passage, changed from using the term vision quest to using the term vision fast. They did this out of consideration for Native Americans.

I believe that in this time of ecological crisis the earth and all the people on it need us to be aware of our interconnectedness with the earth and all living creatures. The old ways of the first peoples are needed, to help foster this awareness. Some Native American leaders and writers agree that the old ways are needed, and they are willing to teach them to all people, regardless of race. With over 50% of the earth’s population living in cities now, we need a ceremony that brings people out into wild nature. And certainly, people of all ages need rites of passage to bring meaning, celebration, and an awareness of being part of the wholeness of our world. I believe that the need for and value of this ceremony is great. My own personal experience of it, fasting annually for the past three years, is that it is so healing and transformative that I want to offer this experience to others. So I have chosen to learn to guide others in the vision fast ceremony as taught by the School of Lost Borders.

BC eagle feathersMy friend Janet, who has the Métis heritage, gave me an eagle feather and sage to use for smudging in the traditional way. I feel she invited me into these ways with her gifts. She has encouraged me to offer the teachings I learn to First Nations people in the Merritt area. I have felt shy about doing this, and think it must be very inappropriate. But she told me to do it. People want to be in the sacred ceremony. In some cases the old ways have been lost to the first peoples themselves, and they are hungry to learn wherever they can. I have invited First Nations people from the Merritt area to events at Monkey Valley, and will continue to do so, even though I still feel very shy about it.

I try to remember to use the sacred ceremonies I have learned with respect for the first peoples. I thank the ancestors of the land where the ceremony is being held. I thank the spirits of the land, and the grandmothers and grandfathers, and ask for their help and guidance in keeping the fasters safe and teaching them what they need to know. The spirits seem to listen and to help. This is all I know.

Vision quest—background

A rite of passage

Peoples of many cultures have created traditions and ceremonies involving solo time in wild Faster in Wyoming's red desertnature. In North America, the plains peoples are the most well-known groups to use the ancient practice of the vision quest. John Murray recounts, in editors Michael Tobias and Georgianne Cowan’s The Soul of Nature, a story of discovering a vision quest site in Rocky Mountain National Park. Archaeologists from Colorado State University and the National Park Service studied the site and determined it had been used for vision quests and fasts from 10,000 years ago until about 500 years ago. This is remarkable! Long before the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the first peoples of North America had been using spiritual ceremony to help their people live and thrive.

The vision quest was used as a rite of passage to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. The quester would fast from food, people, and shelter. In some groups the faster would go forth naked, with only a bear-skin robe for warmth and protection. Severing from her people (I don’t know for sure if young women participated in this ceremony, or if it was only males in traditional societies who used this rite of passage, but today they definitely do!), the quester would enter a threshold space—a space between worlds, a place of spirit. The faster would be invisible to her people—a spirit form—until returning back across the threshold, sometimes after four days and four nights of fasting, sometimes for different periods of time. Upon returning, the quester would tell her story of the fast. The story would be received by her elders, and the entire community would know that the quester had successfully crossed over into adulthood. She might have received a vision, or a gift to bring back to her people. Incorporation, the final stage of the vision fast process, would involve living her gift or vision—bringing it back to her people, and making it real.

There are historical accounts of Native Americans who saw the coming of Christopher Columbus’s ship in a vision, but didn’t know what it was because they had never seen a ship before. There are many accounts of first peoples visionaries seeing the coming of the “white man” and the ensuing drastic effects on their way of life.

Today, First Nation peoples in some parts of North America still use the vision quest ceremony. Contemporary groups such as the School of Lost Borders and Monkey Valley Retreat Centre also put people out on the land to undergo the rite of passage of the vision fast. See the Links page for other contemporary organizations who offer vision fasts.

Clinging to summer

Pink PearlLabour Day is over. It’s September. There’s no denying that summer is over, even though the sun is still bright. The wheel is turning around to the west, to the harvest, and the dying time of the fall. As a Scorpio born in late October, I always relish the coming of the fall. Maybe it’s memories of back to school and new school clothes and the smell of pink erasers. I keep one in a drawer just so I can smell it now and then. Remember those back to school days, with yellow pencils and maybe even a new set of coloured pencil crayons?

But if you’d like a little while longer to cling to the long days of August, here is a summary of the postings that describe August days at Monkey Valley. I invite you to stroll through the long grasses of the meadow, and hear the call of the red-shafted flicker once more…