A Toolbox for locating Power Places

There is an honest experience of spiritual space.  We all understand this somewhere deep in our psyches.  It comes out of a time when there were fewer of our species on this earth and we banded together for safety.  A time when we could walk for days without seeing a person; when our eye scanned a horizon without limit.  Space on our planet is becoming at a premium.  Without being told this, we can feel it.  Crowd or no crowd, we feel the limit pressing against us.  We are aware of this, regardless of how much solitude we enjoy at any moment.  And that awareness is troubling—the too many rats in the cage syndrome.  Our DNA is not fit for these kinds of crowds.  We are adapted for limitlessness, expansiveness, a clarity and freshness of consciousness.  All else becomes depressive, constrictive, crazy-making.  Depression is widespread and no amount of pills can fix the kind that hungers for open spaces.  This type of depression has deeper roots, like a tree caught in a can, its’ crown gnarled, unable to grow and expand.  This crush of human consciousness might not be obvious until you’ve actually been in an environment not only without crowds, but without much of today’s technologies.  Once you’ve tasted the difference, you can never fully go back.  You’ve drunk the punch.

Limitless expanse hides in our DNA

I fear there are less and less places on the earth where one can experience this feeling, so natural yet now so foreign to us.  Our world today is crowded even in places where its’ not.  Wires, cell towers, EM pollution, air pollution, water pollution, on and on.  I first fell in love with Wyoming, in the tiny town of Pinedale.  Long ago I ‘drunk the punch’ there.  Pinedale today, population 1,400, has air quality in the winter  worse than Los Angeles due to ozone from the gas fields.  Los Angeles!  Where there are almost 10 million people!

Pinedale anticline gas field in winter

Power in sacred spaces is diminished by man-made monstrosities like wires, roads, buildings, oil fields and other land scars.  Some places must just remain sacred.  With large amounts of people on this earth, we require even larger amounts of sacred spaces, not less, to hold the quiet so necessary for our spiritual peace of mind.

Living in the Bay Area for a few weeks, I became acutely aware of our lack of psychic space.  Yes, there are refuges here and there—parks, open space, even National Forests & Parks—but there is no ‘Wildness’ capable of absorbing our subjectivity, helping to ‘jumpstart’ us into this present moment.  With so many people using the limited amounts of open land, there must be many more rules. Trails are neatly constructed, lots of signage, no dogs, fees for parking, and on and on.  I don’t resent this.  In an overcrowded world with more and more people seeking refuge, that is the price we pay.

Private golf course abutts a Widerness area in Sedona

But are these controlled parks and lands the refuges we truly seek?  Or are they a compromise, a washed down version of something we once knew and now must settle for?  Can places of Power that were once brimming over, full of energy, yet now diluted by human interference, still transmit the same potency they contained hundreds, if not thousands of years ago?  Is it still possible to go out as a vision seeker, like Jesus, Gautama or Plenty Coups, and have the  Power of Place transform and enlighten us?  I see this as an important question to ponder.

Milarepa in his cave for 20 years

Every great spiritual leader in all traditions–and traditionally any person who had the inclination—went seeking their vision, their connection, a transmission of wisdom or insight through a communion experience in nature.  They went alone.  Where ever the power was present in their unique geography, there they went.  Some to mountains, other to deserts.  Some, like the Buddha, found a quiet and large tree to sit under.  Others, like the Tibetan Yogi Milarepa, sought a cave and sat there for twenty years.  I don’t recall a story where the Enlightenment, the Profundity, came forth at home with the kids or when haggling in the marketplace.  A retreat was necessary, in an isolated Place of Power. The transmission of Power in a sacred place seems to have the capacity to transform a person.

Devil's tower. Sacred to Indian tribes

This retreat is not the exclusive right of the rich, nor the so-called more spiritually advanced or inclined.  This is, and should be preserved as, the birthright of every human.  This transmission of wisdom and awakening takes place in Land free of transmission and electrical lines,  ORV’s, signed and groomed trails, night sky pollution, and other unnatural human effects which distort the Energy of Power Places.  To be so alive with Power, the place must also be alive with all the large and small critters that nature intended to be there.   How can a ‘spirit animal’ come to you and instruct you if their spirit is no longer there?   This is not a matter of belief.  It is imbued in the land itself.  A Silent Spring, as Rachel Carson warned us about, is a dead place spiritually.  It may be pretty to look at, but it lacks all the elements that give it Life.

The Effects of Off-Highway Vehicles on Archaeological Sites and Selected Natural Resources of Red Rock Canyon State Park

We all need places where we can, if we so desire, wander for days without seeing a soul, or a trail; a place where the natural forces of the Earth—drought, fire, wind, are allowed to shape the Land.  A Place where your eyes can come to rest in a limitless horizon of the natural world.  Places where the natural drama of Life is played out by the animals that live there.  That drama, of life and death, is part of the spiritual lesson we are seeking to understand and transcend when we go out alone.  We too are part of that cycle, and having those animals out there, as well as the force of nature to confront, keeps us awake to this present moment.

In our distant past as a people, when we wanted to go on a vision quest or spiritual journey, we knew through our feeling sensitivity the places where we should go and sit; we knew where Power gathered and so there we headed.  In today’s world, how would we know?  We have no culture to guide us, no designated spiritual places.

We must re-learn to trust our innate feeling sense as our guide.  To do this requires a different approach to the outdoors.  There are times when all we want to do is unwind and recreate in nature—to ski, or climb, or backpack, or use an ORV.  That is fine too.  But to be sensitive to Power Places, a different asana is required.  Right approach means curiosity and sensitivity mixed with a healthy respect.   This will guide our noses and give us the information we need to determine the different qualities a place contains.  A good tool is wandering.  Wandering without goal opens our senses.  The posture of ‘not knowing’ or abandoning the ‘need to know’ connects us with our child mind, a mind that is free of constructs and defenses.  Alertness and awareness are necessary when wandering in the wilderness—there are dangers in the form of topography, weather, accidents, or animals like bears, rattlesnakes, or even ticks.   With these few simple intentions in our toolbox of our ‘sacred quest’, nature will guide us easily into the present moment.  Once there, it’s easy to feel what kind of power is in a place.

The Wonderful Absaroka Front

This is an area I’d been to several times before.  A trail runs along the Absaroka front, and maintained trails around the Absarokas are unusual to find in general, let alone ones that are marked with cairns.  I was surprised at the height of the cairns, considering this is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands.  “Why”, I asked myself, “would the BLM go to such great lengths to construct these massive trail markers?”

What is a cairn?  Basically it’s a pile of rocks that one usually sees to mark trails that are not easily visible in the back country.  In other words, they are usually placed at points where one might lose one’s way and are usually put there by hikers.

Last week I hiked this area again, this time with a friend who had heard that there were many more cairns and the cairns were put there by Sheepeater Indians.

Koda has a drink of rainwater from a natural stone bowl in the high desert

So we hiked the trail, which after about 2 miles turns into nothingness, just peeters out and there’s a stock fence one has to cross if you want to continue.  Last time I did cross over the fence, but on the other side is a steep drainage, followed by a series of steep drainages.  Today we stopped near the fence, looked north up into a ‘V’ shaped drainage that was fairly steep.

We hiked up the 'V' shaped valley to a series of cairns

We began the climb up the drainage.  The Cairns appeared, large and numerous. At first it seemed like they were positioned on either side of the valley’s opening. The drainage narrowed as it rose higher, the cairns got closer together, at times steering around hummocks.  I was certain that this must be a Sheepeater’s animal drive, probably for Bighorns.

But then the pattern disappeared and it became very unclear what the purpose of the cairns’ were.  We found altar-like rock formations in two separate areas that were in the center of small clearings.  I insisted we hike as far as we could to see when the cairns stopped.  They stopped at a small flat clearing encircled by steep walls where the drainage splits into two.

We counted over 32 cairns with 2 altars.  Some of these had been already surveyed by the BLM, as they left steel markers beside them.  If you look at these cairns carefully, you begin to notice several things.

First, that they are very well-constructed.  Many of the rocks are quite large, probably weighing over 200 pounds.  Some of the rocks would take 3 people to move into place.  Also, each cairn is incredibly heavy and sturdy.

Second, that most of the rocks in the cairns are placed with their top side (the side that had been out of the dirt) facing the inside of the structure.  I have worked with rocks for many years.  I’ve spent hundreds of hours picking out rocks as well as supervising men to place them exactly how I want them to look.  If you are doing a design for a landscape, you want to pick out a rock with a lot of lichen.  Its also very obvious which side was in the dirt, because it doesn’t have any lichen growing on it and its dirtier.  Also, there is always an obvious line on a rock that marks where the rock was below and above the dirt.   You could still see the dirt line on these rocks, but because they’d been exposed for so long, the ‘dirt’ side wasn’t dirty, just a lighter color.  The darker side, the top of the rock, still had the lichen growing on it.  I had to wonder if this was intentional.  Because the lighter side was the most exposed, maybe you could see the rocks better in the moonlight, or in the snow, or at night with torches.   Light would reflect better off of a lighter surface.  Maybe it just stood out better in the landscape.

Thirdly, these were very large rocks, and the hillside was steep.  You would have to assume that these were rocks taken from directly nearby each cairn.  And if this were the case (it would be a much bigger building effort to carry rocks from a different location up this hillside), then you’d see depressions in the soil from which the rocks were taken.  But there was no evidence of this at all, which suggested to me that these cairns were very very old; old enough so soil had time to accumulate and vegetation to grow.  In this very dry and sparse country, land scars take a long time to heal over.

And lastly, many of these cairns were a work of art and beauty.  Having worked with rock and stone for so many years, I have a great appreciation for these things.  I can easily tell a stone wall constructed by a master mason, or when rocks are placed in a natural and considered manner.  Many of these cairns followed lines of an existing boulder perfectly.  Some were balanced intricately on the steep hillside. These cairns were done by master builders, and were still standing after many years.  They weren’t piles of rocks just to mark something.  They had intention in them.

One of the smaller but beautiful cairns. This one follows the lines of the existing boulder to form a triangle

Tonight as I was driving home,  I remembered that not too far away from these cairns is some private land where the Wyoming Archaeological Society studied a series of cairns that served as a buffalo drive.  I wondered if there was any connection between these two sites, which are so close together.

WY Archaeological Society map of an ancient buffalo drive area in NE WY

All this made me think again about the BLM’s plan for the next 20 years, which is in progress at this moment, though comments are now closed.  There are some factions who would like all our public lands open for drilling, without concern for wildlife, aesthetic beauty or even sacred sites.  There is also a strong movement to keep the Absaroka front off-limits to any kind of development such as oil and gas. Not only is the Absaroka front a very important corridor for wildlife movement, and not only is it uniquely stunning in its natural beauty, but here is living proof that it was, and still is, sacred ground.  These cairns are arranged as a hidden code, with meaning we have not unlocked, but with an intention very clear to their builders.  I believe that this site may have been some kind of animal drive, but it seems to have been more than that, especially since we found clear altar-type rock formations.  This site had sacred and special meaning and is just more evidence of why we need to protect this places and special places like this for all time into the future.

 

 

My Kind of Wyoming

There is a rawness here.  A kind of un-forgetting.  Where forgetting can mean the difference between life and death.  A brilliant clear day of 60 degrees can suddenly turn into a snowstorm at 20 below.   The crackling of dry leaves can mean a grizzly and her cubs around the corner.   Your car breaks down on a lonely dirt road where no one travels for days at a time.

Vulnerability is the tenure of existence.  No amount of pretense or camouflage can make up for the visibility of that fundamental truth.  The sharp edge of living with that awareness draws the psyche into deeper places.  There is no hiding from the existential quandary of our aloneness.Changing Aspens after a October snowstorm

Elk in Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

Dawn in Yellowstone

In a state as large as 97,000 sq. miles in area but with only a little over  600,000 people, this is the unspoken understanding people live with day by day.  You try and be prepared, but the truth is we are all dependent .  Rugged independence may be what is imagined by those passing through, fueled by the cowboy Hollywood image; one has to live here to know the extent of actual interdependence.

You may not care for your neighbors’ politics or drinking problem, but he’ll sure as hell be there for you when you’re broke down on the road or lost in a snowstorm.  A whole town will pitch in with a raffle or a fundraiser if you need medical care you can’t afford.  Total strangers do the unheard-of to help one another.  A young man from back east was lost in our area while hiking the cliffs.  One of my neighbors looked for him for over two years until he finally gave up.   A friend of mine risked his life to save a drowning stranger trapped on a frozen river, in an upturned truck, that he encountered while driving along a lonesome highway.Red River Canyon, Lander

The intense quiet and overwhelming geography make long gaps in a conversation comfortable, even necessary.   It is as if the Human is subsumed by the largeness of the landscape.   I stop to say hello to a neighbor.  Standing in the dirt driveway by the fenced meadow, large cumulus clouds pass over.   The sky turns brilliant colors as the day comes to a close.  We pause to watch .  There is a rightness to it, as if in church—here, we are in church.  It is the Land.Big Horn Canyon

Thoughts are telegraphed rather than spoken.   The land itself starts to breath you, in and out.  The only forgetting is what comes with leaving behind the busyness, the necessities of ‘thinking to know’ and ‘needing to know’.  The rhythm of the natural world is meditation,  awareness,  alertness.  That seems to be the nature of consciousness for it is the key to survival.Buffalo in Lamar Valley

People here watch game.  They read the weather by the movement of the deer or the seasonal shifts of the birds.  They remember a year by the large population of Unita Ground Squirrels or the overwhelming plague of grasshoppers.  Time is punctuated by rare sightings–of a wolf making a kill, a mountain lion stalking a deer, the buffalo skull found by the river.Wild Horse in Big Horns

The art of storytelling is alive, well, and resuscitated.  There are stories of breaking horses, of rodeo riding, of guiding and ranching.  The time the tourist at Yellowstone was trying to push a Grizzly into the back of his station wagon to ‘bring him home’.  The 47″ trout caught ice fishing in ’62 down at New Fork Lakes.   The 9 cords of wood “I tried to sell ‘em cheap” with the house, but that fellow said “I’m putting in electric heat”, and then it got 30 below in Pinedale, the electricity went off, and he had to haul his whole family to a motel in town.  Those are the abbreviated versions.  The embellished keep you captive.

Gretel Ehrlich, in beautiful prose that reflects her love affair with Wyoming, eloquently expresses it:

“…there is true vulnerability in evidence here.  Because these men work with animals, not machines or numbers, because they live outside in landscapes of torrential beauty, because they are confined to a place and a routine embellished with awesome variables, because calves die in the arms that pulled others into life, because they go to the mountains as if on a pilgrimage to find out what makes a herd of elk tick, their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy.” (The Solace of Open Spaces)

This is my kind of place.  This is Wyoming.Backpacking in the Beartooths

The Dreaming

This winter I went to Australia with my son.  Its the perfect place for a California Landscape Designer to explore, as its just one of the five Mediterranean climates around the world.  I use a lot of the plant material from there, and to see these plants in their native environments is interesting and instructive.

I was in Australia for several months over twenty years ago, so this was my second visit.  I planned to go back to Sydney (I almost moved there 20 years ago), then venture up to the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and a UNESCO site (north of Cairns) and then to Atherton Tablelands wetlands retreat in a savannah ecosystem.  My son has a teacher from Australia who said “You MUST go to Uluru.”  I hadn’t planned to go there.  I knew about Ayers Rock for a long time.  It’s a long trek, by plane or otherwise, to see ‘just a rock’ I thought.  Besides, I live in a most beautiful place, surrounded by magnificent mountains and rock features, geysers and wildlife.  I’ve visited many deserts and spent a lot of time in Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  What could one rock in the middle of the country possibly hold for me?

My travel agent also brought up the idea, and since we were in Australia over Christmas and many places were shut down for several days, Uluru seemed like a likely ‘detour’ during that lull.  We were to be there for a day and a half and then drive to Alice Springs.  But the holiday put a wrench in the travel plans…ferries didn’t run, planes had restricted schedules, etc…so we spent an extra day in Uluru/Kata Tjuta area.  It wasn’t till later that I realized things had conspired to bring us there for a fuller experience.

Uluru

Read the whole story

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 166 other followers