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    A COMPENDIUM FOR THE DRY GARDEN

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The Heart of Wildness

….When Mabel McKay, a deceased Pomo basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn’t worked for him, she responded, “You don’t know the songs. You have to know the right songs.” With no one to teach us, we don’t know the songs either.  The native practice of dreaming songs about the nonhuman world seems as valuable and elusive as a piece of pure bunchgrass prairie or the truth about the land. “Gardening with a Wild Heart”

Some say wilderness disappeared with Lewis and Clark.  We may still have wild lands, but true wilderness is gone.  Maybe once we finished mapping every inch, that was the final nail in the coffin.

Dad's Lake.  The Continental Divide looms in the background

Dad’s Lake. The Continental Divide looms in the background

Indigenous cultures once had their very identify, culture, and religion tied to the Land. The plants and animals were as familiar and knowable to them as our ATM’s and supermarkets are to us today.  They were Earth-based cultures. And although I consider our European cultures ‘Sky-based’–we identify with ideas i.e. ‘liberty and freedom’ or ‘God in Heaven’–there are still those of us who find sustenance and spiritual refreshment in Land.  And I would argue since all human beings are fitted to this earth, therefore the natural world and its wildness must resonate for everyone.  In essence, we are still Land-based peoples. Only our culturally-inherited earth knowledge has been diminished.

 

Swallowtail

 

In todays world, it is expedient and pragmatic for conservation groups to cloth their case in economic terms, whether it be for wildlife or land preservation.   Protecting wolves or bears becomes important because people like to view them, which brings in tourist dollars.  Setting aside elk habitat is good for hunters as they pay for the game agencies. The argument to preserve every ‘cog and wheel’ for its own sake has no power.

 

Coyote pups

Yet conservation groups are amiss to ignore this argument, for truly that is what is at the heart of the issue–we need these lands for our spirit; preserving the entire biotic community is important for its inherent value, not its monetary one.  The mysteries of this Earth spark our sense of wonder.  If all becomes mapped and pedestrian, where shall we look for awe, for beauty, for the surprise of diversity and difference.  Without these basic human needs met, we lose our compass in this world.

It is time to add this other dimension to our call for protection.  In my book The Wild Excellence I call this added element ‘The Sacred Land Ethic’.  Aldo Leopold’s land ethic states

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  The land ethic simple enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.  A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

To this eloquent and beautiful description of the way we should live, I’ve just added the word ‘sacred’ to include Land as a source of vision, spiritual awareness and sustenance.  Sacred includes all the plant songs we have yet to remember, and all the dances the animals have yet to re-teach us.  Sacred includes that moment when you stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the moment alone in the woods when you encounter a new-born fawn.

Moose and calf

All of us have resorted on many occasions to the natural world for restoration. So let us not hide behind the arguments of ‘monetary value’ of wildlife.  Let us speak the truth of why it is we are fighting to preserve what’s left of the wilds.

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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.