Goodbye, wascally weasel

Final rest for weaselI had a productive 9 days at Monkey Valley, with the winter plumbing problems fixed at low cost, thanks to Kevin Thompson of Princeton, BC! Finishing work on the barn is well underway, too, thanks to Brent Ross and Tom. It is going to be bee-you-tiful, as my grandma used to say. I’m coming up on 9 years at Monkey Valley now, and I do believe all of the work will be finished this year!

I also felt inspired to do some work on the medicine wheel. I went down there to pray for my friend Dorrie, who died recently, and felt spirit telling me it was time to finish the wheel, which was created at a medicine wheel teaching in 2005. At that time we laid out the direction stones and center stones, and filled in most of the rest of the wheel with pieces of wood. Now I started replacing the wood with stones—the grandfathers. I dug a narrow trench from the east door to the south door, in honour of the spring section of the wheel that we are in right now. And I filled in the entire curve with beautiful stones. That was a bit of a job, as the stones felt the need to periodically leap from the wheelbarrow on the journey from my house to the wheel. I did my best to be patient with them, but at one point my patience ran out and I pleaded for their cooperation!

Rascally Donald beside his truckThe time at Monkey Valley ended on a sad note, with a morning discovery of weasel corpse in the downstairs bathroom. The poor little thing has expired. I don’t doubt this is due to torture by Donald. It was a real gift to get to see weasel up close, this time in his summer clothes, but I felt sad that his life is over. He emitted a perfumey, flowery musk smell, which I also noticed in the region of Donald’s nose. What a perfect creature this weasel was; whole and self-contained. His is-ness was striking, even though he was no more.

I didn’t feel as sad about this tiny animal death as I used to do when I found a bird or mouse that Donald killed. It used to break my heart. I wondered if my heart has hardened, but a dear friend suggested that perhaps I am just more connected with the natural cycle of life and death now, through the time I have spent in connecting with the land. So that I can accept the natural fact of death better. Maybe so.

Accepting the death of my friend is a different matter, which I don’t wish to treat lightly in this blog. I will say that I am missing her very much. I pray that she is held in loving light, and is at peace, finding her way in the new formlessness she has become.

Sweat lodges, vision fasts, smudging with herbs: whose practices are these?

SmokeAs I continue to tell you the story of the sacred time in the sweat lodge, I am troubled by a recurring theme that has arisen over the years, about cultural appropriation, or misappropriation. I just came across this article from 1993 in the New York Times, Spiritual Seekers Borrow Indians’ Ways.

Clearly, this has been an issue for much longer than 16 years. Tibetan Buddhism borrowed from the earlier nature-based tradition called Bon, appropriating symbolism and ritual practices from Tibetan peoples into this branch of Buddhism. Early Christianity appropriated pagan symbols and ritual into Christian practices. Throughout history, conquerors have incorporated spiritual and cultural elements from the people they conquer. It is a method that helps to overcome the conquered people, and it is also a form of theft. And, it is part of the mysterious process of combining different groups of people together into something new. This happens also through the intermarriage and mixing of blood of the two peoples.

Then there is the question of reincarnation! When I was learning yoga, I had the definite feeling that I was doing something very familiar, and I knew that I must have lived in India in a previous life and practiced yoga then. If so, as a Caucasion woman born in Canada, of German Mennonite parentage, is it cultural misappropriation to teach yoga to others? Or do I have a legitimate claim to this teaching, through my own past life knowledge?! This is a delightful idea to contemplate, in part because I know how ridiculous it will seem to some readers, for numerous reasons.

I have a similar feeling of homecoming when I sit in circle on the earth, and the sage bowl is passed around to purify each person in the circle. I feel I have landed. My heart opens to the earth and the people in the circle, but also to something even bigger. Perhaps it is to a stream of history, people, and events that have gone before. Perhaps it is to the beloved mystery that is the oneness of the universe that we live in. Something about this sacred practice of purifying with sage brings a feeling of lightness and connection into my soul.

When I studied ecopsychology at Naropa University, we had a short course on cultural misappropriation, to make us aware of this danger. We were encouraged to study our own family and culture’s ancient traditions. I know that for me, with German Mennonite heritage on both sides, I have been influenced by this flavour of the sacred. The strongest value I am aware of, the defining characteristic of the Mennonites, is the practice of non-violence. The refusal to fight in wars. And stories about how my ancestors have followed or failed to follow this practice were told to me as a child. It is one of the strongest values I hold today, yet the way that I really learned to practice it was through the practice of ahimsa or non-harming that I was exposed to when I attended a Buddhist Vipassana meditation retreat and when I studied to be a yoga teacher!

I personally cannot identify as a Christian, whether Mennonite or otherwise. Too much harm has been done in the name of Christianity. Too many wars have been fought, and people and cultures destroyed by the followers of this religion. The idea that a single book contains all that is true, which is used as a weapon of hatred and suppression against people who are different (women, people of colour, lesbians and gays), is crazy! So when enjoined to look at my own family and culture’s traditions, at first I come up against a block. But if I look a little further, the picture opens up. If I look at my extended family, which includes relatives by marriage, I find we are German Canadian, Chinese Canadian, African Canadian, Italian Canadian, Austrian Canadian, and First Nations. I have American relatives too. And these are just the connections that I know about. The deeper truth is of a global connection and interconnection.

And I believe this is also true of earth-based practices. Before the advent of the monotheistic religions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, which are only a few thousand years old—much younger than the lifetime of humanity—people lived on the land and practiced sacred rites that fostered connection to each other and the land. Sitting in circle. Sitting on the earth. Fasting alone in the wilderness. Smudging with herbs (think of the use of incense in Catholic rituals if you doubt what I am saying about appropriating the practices of earlier sacred rituals). Building stone circles. All peoples in all lands have done these things. It is in our DNA as people on this planet to resonate with these ancient ways. These ways belong to all of us.

That is one part of the picture. Another part is that the sweat lodge ceremony Smoke 2that I will be writing about comes from the First Nations and Native American people of this continent. Some of the words are from the language of the Lakota people. Aho matakwe-asin! All my relations! It opens my heart to hear these words, and to say them.

The ways and values of the people who are still close to the land are ways we all must learn, if we are going to stop the destruction of the earth in time to make continued life on earth possible for the species that remain. May it be so.

This doesn’t mean everyone should go to a sweat lodge, or on a vision fast. But it does mean everyone needs to understand that we are interconnected, with each other and with the earth. We are interdependent. I just came across information about a workshop that helps modern, “scientifically-minded” people to understand this! Originally developed for the World Wildlife Fund, this workshop is unlike any other you may have experienced. In a few short hours, you will develop a deep appreciation of the complex links between diverse global issues such as population, wealth, consumption, pollution, climate change, natural resources, species extinction, and even war. More importantly, you will learn what we can do as individuals and as a society to build a truly sustainable future. The May 21 evening workshop is called Systems Thinking… About Our World. Check it out!

The gift of fire

 Meeting in Circle with the Wilderness Guides Council

Fire is the element of the east, the direction of springtime. When I first sat in circle at the Wilderness Guides Council, on Monday, April 13, I deliberately sat in the east. This is a part of the wheel that I am least comfortable in. Magic happens here, and the unpredictable, for it is in this direction that old forms are broken down so that something new can emerge. It is the direction of creativity, death and rebirth, and has the gift of vision of the eagle flying high in the sky.

I am typically more comfortable in the west, the place of introspection and Flicker featherdarkness. So it felt risky to take my place in the east and own this part of my spirit. There were about 25 guides sitting in the circle, and I listened as they discussed the business of our annual meeting. Things like the budget and who would be carrying on which duties in the year to come. They have a “mask of the ancestors,” and one of the duties is to be the keeper of the mask. It is made out of the pelvic bone of a large animal, and is decorated with feathers and beads. The meeting lasted a long time—about 5 hours—and about 4 hours into it one of the feathers blew off the mask and landed in my lap. It was an orange flicker feather—which I have written about previously in this blog. This was the first magical gift of the east. It seemed like a blessing and confirmation that I am a member of this group. The ancestors confirmed it. And my own heart did too—sitting listening to these people who care about each other, the earth, and the sacred ceremony of the vision fast, I felt my own desire to continue on through time with these people. The gift of the feather confirmed it. I put the feather in my emergency kit, which I always carry with me when I’m out on the land. May it keep all the fasters safe!

The Sweat Lodge

CampfireAfter the Wilderness Guides Council (of North America) gathering ended, we had about 24 hours to prepare the grounds for the International Wilderness Guides Gathering—a week-long gathering of guides from around the world. I helped out a little, setting up the garbage and recycling bins. But the main thing I had volunteered to do was to help with the campfires, to make sure they were put out safely at the end of the night. But somehow this turned into a new job—helping tend the fire for the women’s sweat lodge, which was going to take place the following Saturday. What an honour! I agreed to help, and thought I’d better get an idea of what was involved. So I went to the first sweat of the IWGG gathering, held on Tuesday, April 14th. This was the second gift of the east.

Meeting the Grandfathers

When I got to the place of the sweat lodge, located under the magnificent oak trees, Grandfatherbeside a creek, I sat down with the others who were waiting, took off my shoes, and nestled my toes into the sand. I had not been in a sweat lodge since about 1993, and I was looking forward to seeing how the heat felt to me now. Munro Sickafoose, the netkeeper for the WGC, was pouring water for the sweat. This meant he was running everything that happened inside the sweat lodge (from the human incarnate end—spirit was really running what happened). A beautiful man named Dirk Johnston was the firekeeper, who ran what happened outside of the sweat, preparing the fire to heat the rocks, and transporting them into the sweat lodge. These heated rocks are called the grandfathers, and the firekeeper communes with these rocks and in a sense is responsible for how the sweat goes. It is a sacred and mysterious duty.

It turned out that I was the oldest woman at the sweat lodge, so Munro asked me to sit beside him in the lodge, since his wife wasn’t there, and to put cedar on each grandfather stone as it came into the lodge. I felt very honoured to do this. We were taught what to say as we entered the lodge: Aho matakwe-asin! All my relations! After entering we crawled on our hands and knees in a clockwise direction to take our places around the edges of the lodge. There was a pit in the middle, ready to receive the grandfathers. When we were all inside, Munro asked Dirk to bring in 9 grandfathers. Dirk brought in the first rock, glowing red and clearly visible in the darkness of the sweat lodge. He said “Aho, matakwe-asin! Grandfather, come on in!” Munro guided the pitchfork and placed the rock in the pit in the middle. Now it was my job to sprinkle a little bit of dried cedar leaves on the rock. The herb sparkled as it struck the heated red stone, and the scent began to tickle our noses, creating an immediate feeling that something sacred was happening.

Glow rockSo it went, as Dirk brought each grandfather in. “Aho, matakwe-asin! Grandfather, come on in!” As I sprinkled the herb on each one, I offered a blessing to it. And I fell in love with these glowing grandfather rocks, and with this sacred ceremony from the first peoples of this land.

Munro told us there would be four rounds. The first round was for calling in the ancestors and spirits. The second round was for praying. The third round was for healing. And the final round was the “going home” round. At the beginning of each round, more rocks would be brought in. During the round, Munro would pour water on the rocks to create steam, increasing the heat in the sweat lodge. To be continued…

Wild women run with bears

Sitting bearThe absolute best thing about Monkey Valley is running with the bears. (The worst thing is the cell reception, but I won’t go into that now.) It has not happened often that I’ve had the chance to run with bears here—only a few times in nine years—but it happened today.

I went for a nice, long Sunday run, heading out along the old dirt road, overgrown with grass, on the other side of the creek. I forded the swollen springtime creek by climbing along an old fence that has half fallen over, and followed the road up to the gate at the south-east edge of my property—a 20-minute run from the house to the gate, all on my own land!

This is one of the things that drew me to look for a remote property—the desire to run on trails where no cars were—breathing exhaust fumes while out for a run is the worst!

I climbed through the wooden rails of the gate, and followed the track up to Galena Creek Road. Along this stretch I thought about bears, wondering if they were finished hibernating. I realized it was a very warm May day—surely they were out of hibernation, and had been for a while!

At Galena Creek Road I headed north-east, going uphill past the 14K marker, and decided to go as far as the 15K marker. At that point I greeted the trees, offered Reiki to the land and all her creatures (as I usually do at the turn-around point of a run in the woods), and headed back.

On the way back I was watching out for a marshy section, which has been a Bear going about his businessbreeding ground for mosquitoes. I’d found it on a medicine walk a few years ago, which had begun with a moose sighting, followed by a remarkable, magical encounter with a bear. So bear was really on my mind today, and looking ahead from the top of a hill, I saw a bear friend looking for greens in the clearing that led to my land!

I immediately stopped at the crest of the hill, and sat down in the middle of the road to watch the bear. He was some distance away—probably about 200 yards—but I had a good view from the top of the hill. I don’t think the bear noticed me. The wind was blowing from Missezula Lake to the bear and then to me. I could smell the lake smell, and I heard grouse drumming out their spring mating dance. In fact, I accidentally ran one off the road during this same run.

But now I was competely absorbed and fascinated by the bear. He was black, and looked quite small, perhaps because of the distance. I wondered if he might be a cub, but there didn’t seem to be any other bears around. He was browsing for new grass to eat—still a sparse commodity in this neck of the woods in May. After a minute or two he ambled east, crossing the road well ahead of me. He looked very thin in profile, and seemed to have a long tail. But what struck me the most was he looked like a human in a bear suit. The way he walked, with purpose and a sense of direction, conveyed the sense of him as an entity with his own business to attend to. Usually when I’ve seen bears they have been running away from me, which is very different from this one who was simply going about his business.

Fat black bearI watched until he was out of sight, and stayed there for a minute or two more, hoping he might wander back into view. How I longed for more time with the bear!

When he didn’t reappear I resumed my homeward run, looking for tracks or scat when I got to where the bear had been. I couldn’t see any signs, though my own tracks from running were plainly visible in the gravel of the logging road. The poor thing must have lost a lot of weight over the winter, to step so lightly that he left no tracks. I climbed a nearby hill on the side of the road where he’d disappeared, hoping for another glimpse, but didn’t see him. So I offered him some Reiki for protection, and the prayer that he would find lots to eat this spring.

Then I headed home, feeling blessed by this encounter with wildness.

We evolved together with the wild animals of the world, and I believe we need their company to feel complete. We are lonely without them.Two bears

There are so few of our wild friends left. Don’t hurt them! Stop hunting bears. Stop hunting the wild creatures.

Learning and transformation — ouch!

Relaxing after the fast, in Tucson: Georgie & Kate (Ukraine) and Lerato, Scotch, & Leana (South Africa)I wasn’t always a happy camper at the 4th International Wilderness Guides Gathering, held in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains this April. Previous gatherings have been held in Germany, South Africa, and the UK. People from these countries attended, and many more besides. The gathering was hosted by the Wilderness Guides Council, a North American organization of which I am a member. It was wonderful to meet fellow guides, and to feel I belong to this group of people who are passionate about connecting with the earth and helping others undertake the rite of passage known as the vision fast or vision quest. However, there is a shadow side to every event, and any kind of learning and expansion frequently involves discomfort.

The next gathering, in 2012, will be in the Ukraine. It is wonderful to know that wilderness work is growing strong in many places around the world. The Ukrainians’ plea to host the next gathering was magical. Georgie drew the sign of the four directions in the earth, and it seemed obvious that the Ukraine is the place of the east, where the next gathering should be. Those present could clearly feel the strength of his desire to support wilderness work such as the vision quest to take root again in the Ukraine, where it has been virtually lost as a practice among the people there. It was very moving to witness the gathering of about 120 people sit in council together and reach the decision to meet in the Ukraine next time. Siberia is reputed to be the birthplace of shamanism, and my family has roots in the formerly German Mennonite community of Zaporojie, in the Ukraine, so I was especially moved to know that the guides of the world will gather there to help rebuild lost connections to the ways of the earth.

After the gathering, Tom Quinton (from Big Sur) offered a guides’ renewal fast, which I went to, and there the basecamp was also held by Gillian Wilton from South Africa, and Heorhiy (Georgie) Kushnir from the Ukraine. The nine guides fasting were from Canada, the UK, the US, the Ukraine, Germany, and Australia. Wow! Has such a thing ever happened before?

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about my experiences at the guides gathering and the renewal fast. I am going to begin with my first journal entry:

2009 April 12, after dark, everyone else asleep…

Cow poo and prickly things at my fasting siteHere I am at the IWGG in a campground in the Chiricahua Mountains. At the moment I hate it. It’s very cold. There’s a bunch of people crowded into each campsite. Corinna is snoring away so I’ll have to wear earplugs. I just put them in but they haven’t fully expanded yet. Just as I was settling in I found a giant spider in my tent and had to remove it…

And thus the trip began with the discomfort that severance from the clean, familiar, and warm comforts of home always brings. This was the lesson I learned on one of the first medicine walks I ever did, and it continues to be something I forget and relearn. Spending time in nature, on uneven surfaces, with bugs and temperature fluctuations and prickly things, is UNCOMFORTABLE! Every time, I need to find a way to GET OVER IT! Afterwards I remember the beautiful connections with people and the land, the ceremonies, the animals, the inner growth. But at the time, I am mostly focused on the DISCOMFORT. I guess this is the way of the ego.