For weeks, this line plagues me. Finally, I go outside on an unseasonably warm February day. I sit beside a small fire and I ask the land, “What does this mean?”
I hear the birds—crows, robins, wrens, chickadees, sparrows, Stellar’s jays—each singing in its own language. I hear the wind whispering through the cedars and pines, ringing the chimes that hang by my door. I hear squirrels chittering in the high branches and the quiet buzz of box elder beetles. I hear the low roar of the freeway two miles away and the explosive passing of a jet. I hear a neighbor’s door open and human voices, distant, indecipherable.
I dream a little, gazing at the small flame, and in my dreaming I hear the land. The land says, “All this arises from me and belongs to me. Everything is born and spun from me, grows and lives on me and will return to me to be reformed and reborn. With Wind and Fire and Rain I call everything into Life. Listen, Life is speaking to you in ten thousand ways.”
I make an offering of tobacco in a circle around me and breathe tobacco into the wind. I drink the sweet water the land provides and feel the sun warm on my back. My thought flies to the original peoples, how they inhabited every land from the Siberian tundra to the Amazon rainforests, the Pacific islands to the American plains, the African deserts to the Himalayans. How could they survive and thrive, lacking fur and fang, claw and wing, except by listening to and living in intimate connection with the land?
All indigenous ancestral traditions are filled with stories of how the gods came and taught them how to make shelter and clothing, how to make the proper offerings to maintain their relationships with the plants and animals, with the weather beings, with the land itself.
The people knew that the gods inhabited certain sacred sites—mountains, forests, streams, caves, stones, certain inlets of the sea, canyons and deserts. The stories of these gods, the wisdom and gifts that they offered, were the stories of the land. In telling the stories the people knew who they were and where they were and how they were connected to each other, to the plants and animals and to the earth. And, in order to maintain those connections, to continue receiving the wisdom and gifts of the gods, the people made pilgrimages to those sacred places. They held the seasonal festivals, made offerings and maintained their daily prayers.
These spiritual practices are matters of practicality. That is, they are vital to maintaining the connection between the people and the gods of the land and ocean and air. These practices are the exchange people make with the land for the life it gives them. In sum, the practices become the traditions that hold people, which identify them as belonging to certain lands.
In this country, the United States of America, most of us are immigrants to this land—invaders, really. Our spiritual practices and beliefs, also mostly imported, have little to do with the landscapes in which we live. We are primarily concerned with personal salvation, or transcendence or maximizing our human potentials. We have a limited sense of our connection and dependence on each other in community. And, as we’ve moved further away from agrarian society, we have almost no sense of our dependence on the land.
“Dead as dirt,” we sometimes say. We think of the land as dead. Yet, if we look closely, the dirt is utterly alive with insects and worms, fungi and bacteria. Even the dirt and stones are alive with whirling electrons. Everything is alive, and that livingness, that intricate connectivity, manifests the spirit of a place. And it includes us, and the plants and animals as well, whether native or not. As soon as we inhabit a place, the spirit of the land envelops us. It receives our footsteps, assimilates our voices and provides the minerals, fluids and air that sustains us.
In this time of crisis, as we face multiple ecological catastrophes, the land calls us to pay attention again to the voices of the plants and animals and dirt, of the waters and weather—not just as chemical and biological phenomena, but as living beings with whom we are in constant relationship. It’s time for us to slow down, to walk in the forests, by the streams and along the beaches, even on our sidewalks among our people, listening. It’s time to sit together outside beside our fires, to listen to each other and to the land. The world is singing to us, calling us back to connection. If we open ourselves to that wisdom and let the ancient traditions arise again, we may yet survive.
About the Author
Jonathan Merritt is editor emeritus of Sacred Fire. He is a poet, an initiated Huichol shaman (marakame) and a firekeeper in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was originally published in Sacred Fire magazine.
Sacred Fire magazine is an initiative of the Sacred Fire Foundation which seeks to help all people re-discover and celebrate the sacred, interconnected nature of life, a perspective held by indigenous peoples and spiritual traditions everywhere which is the source of all personal, cultural and environmental well-being.
Key initiatives include:
- Sacred Fire magazine, which offers a fresh outlook on modern culture by showing the relevance of ancient ways to today’s world
- Ancient Wisdom Rising, a series of gatherings with elders and wisdom keepers that offer hope, healing and renewed relationship with our sacred world
- Sacred Fire Press, a book imprint that preserves and presents spiritual teachings from ancient and original sources
- Wisdom Fellowships, bi-annual awards to tradition holders who are keeping the sacred fires of their people burning.
This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.
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