By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“The call to power necessitates turning towards the unknown, the mysterium. This change of direction can be accomplished only through what Carl Jung has referred to as ‘an obedience to awareness’.”
There is one near-constant in the canyons of the Southwest. To some it seems like an adversary and to others a friend.... the breath of Earth, the wind. It blows most of the year, from a gentle and delightful breeze to furious gusts that threaten to down the weaker trees, lift the roof of our cabin, and bring even the most arrogant of us to our knees. Most often it is a soft nuzzling, just enough movement of air to let us know it’s there. There can be midmorning moments of absolute stillness, but even they seem somehow taut in anticipation of when the winds might begin again.
It is the wind that blows caves into the tufa and limestone where no water can reach, that carries the scent of the unwary hunter to the flared nostrils of the deer, and that grabs the attention of even the most distracted– reminding them of the world as it is right now, right here. Wind that dries and cracks the ground, and wind that brings the rain. If a sapling is strong it’s not so much from the tensile of its fibers as the periodic testing of the wind. Wind that tugs at our clothes like a teasing lover, or whips the sand into our eyes. Wind that at least temporarily blows the clutter of words from our burdened, racing minds.
Even the most educated and sophisticated of us walk down this river canyon changed, refined not reduced, simplified into beings that hunger and love, that sense cold and heat, that notice the winds passage and sing without provocation. Into curious primates, kindred creatures to those furry and feathered ones that share with us this home. To even the most jaded and predisposed, all the canyon seems energized, alive.... and inspirited. Spirit in the myriad plants and animals, vibrating within volcanic rocks, glowing in the light of a setting sun. Spirit in taste and scent, struggle and fun. Spirit in the life giving river, and in the giddy intercourse of evolving life forms. Spirit in those small and plain things our society so often scorns. Spirit tracing its own movements, in graceful designs in weed lashed sand. Spirit empowering every helpful hand. Spirit in our daughter’s hopeful face. Spirit in the hearts and deeds of they who serve love, truth and place. Spirit singing out from pink and gold cliffs, in the voices of those russet ritualists who came before. And spirit emboldening young cottonwoods and willows to do the “impossible”– extending determined roots into what is an always shifting shore. Spirit that seems to writhe like a river within, spirit as indomitable wind.
Throughout history most cultures and religions have made some reference to wind as a manifestation of or metaphor for spirit. To the Greeks, Anima meant both “courage,” and wind or breath. In the Taoist tradition of Tibet and Nepal, passing through nature and life fully present, conscious and compassionate is called “lung-gom,” the way of the wind. The original meaning of the word “spirit” was “breath:” a clear volume of energy that one can best feel when it moves, alerts, prods or pushes, seduces or agitates. One way to think of spirituality then is as an act of tireless respiration, rhythmically and reciprocally taking in and giving back in equal willing measure.
Students and seekers come to this canyon from all over, each riding astride the currents of their own personal winds of change. Whether they have a language for it or not, most people come here for more than to just spend time at a wild and beautiful retreat center. They come to get in deeper touch with that place within themselves that is still just as beautiful and alive, free and untamed, passionate and purposeful.... to visit what usually proves to be a vast, uncharted and hope-filled savannah within. They are often at a crossroads in their lives looking for the necessary signs to help them decide, or on the edge of some precipice from which they must either fall or fly. Their journey begins not with the booking of a flight to New Mexico, the long drive from Albuquerque in a rented vehicle, or even the mile and a half walk to the refuge from where all cautious cars park. It begins with an awareness they cannot suppress, insights they’re unable to ignore, distraction and dishonor we can no longer tolerate.... and sometimes a calling that just won’t let us be. It is furthered with our grounding in authentic self, service and place. It involves conscious mystical connection, interdependence and interpenetration; expanding empathy and heightened sensation; contact and contracts with the inspirited land, its creatures and plants; energies, entities and insistent inspiriteurs.
Whatever one calls it, there would seem to be a dynamic power that courses through this planet and its wind-filled atmosphere– a vibrational unity, an underlying if in some respects incomprehensible pattern, an entity or energy of inclusion that animates, inspires, enlightens and fuels the best of what it means to be human “kind.” It is this sense of lasting integral beingness that we cleave to, whether envisioned as a male God or Yahweh, a female Goddess or Mother Earth or a formless force for balance or good. And whether recognized by Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Pagan, reformed urban cynic, or man and woman of the woods. The Animá we teach is not just primitive religiosity or a holistic way of perceiving the world. It’s a growing contemporary study, practice and way of life intended for all deeply feeling, intensely seeking people... rooted in ancient ways of knowing and being, in connective “New Science” as well as the lessons and revelations of the natural world. Drawing from the source and ground of all knowing and being, it is possible for Animá to inform – rather than compete with – existing religious, indigenous, magical and philosophical traditions.
As a study, Animá can deepen understanding of our genuine, able selves, in interrelationship with each other, our human communities, and the community of all life. As a practice, it can help us: Increase sense of presence and enjoy increased mindfulness. Better explore personal direction and spiritual or magical path. Deepen awareness and understanding of natural authentic self. Awaken bodily senses, learning to better sense the world we are an integral part of, see more patterns and beauty, hear more exquisitely, taste every nuance of our food, savor even the mundane details of our mortal lives. Explore the so called “sixth sense,” including resonant empathy and innate intuition. Tap into bodily knowing and primal instinct. Grow our sense of place... of family, home, land, ecosystem and bioregion. Further our awareness of and active relationship to the natural, revelatory world. Recognize the intrinsic nature of and animating force in everything, and every thing’s intrinsic value apart from human use. Increase our sense of self worth and confidence, based on our true abilities rather than imposed or imagined characteristics and gifts. Come to better understand our fears, and how to use them as markers for what needs our attention, as fuel to act, to change what needs changing. Realize that we are a co-creators of not only our reality but our world, and commit to acting accordingly. Discover how to give back to the earth that provides and inspires. Learn how to grow from every mistake or misdirection. Get beyond victimhood and attachment to escape or distress. Extricate ourselves from unhealthy habits, expectations, judgments and ways of thinking. Develop healthy attachments to life, spirit, values and missions. Make every moment a decisive moment, and take responsibility for what we both do and don’t do. Reawaken a childlike sense of wonder and connection. Learn how to best utilize our gifts and skills for the good of the greater whole. Discover how to actively fulfill our most meaningful purpose. Positively affect, even in small ways, everyone we meet. Make our environs more healthy, beautiful and natural, as we heal, express and manifest our natural selves. Learn to better celebrate and greater savor.
While each person is unique, the animating spirit of nature can take us to our core, beneath the edifice and habit, and to a place of core agreements and values. In the condition where we are most alive, that we are also most connected, empathic, grateful and caring. Learning to open to the pain of separation and imbalance, simultaneously expands our capacities to feel excitement, awe, love, inspiration and satisfaction. The same winds course through the hearts of every feeling creature, and it’s that Animá that connects us all.
Once again the Southwest breezes pick up, mussing our hair as we breathe in the world... and the earth, in turn, breathes us.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
For the the Animást, the practitioner of Animá, every moment is a decisive moment– and we treat everything we do and don’t do as a deliberate decision. One of the defining traits for an Animást is heightened awareness. The most amazing of our abilities can only serve us or our purpose well when we are totally aware: aware of the full extent of our abilities as well as any possible limitations, aware of the present situation and context, aware of the conscious intent and magical energies of others.... and aware of the intentional as well as unintended effects and results of our actions. Wholly aware of every sight, smell, taste, every personal need, gift, ability, emotion, intuition, instinct... and in that way, being wholly rewarded with the depth and delight of life.
Humans have the most evolved ability to think and reason of any creature on this planet, but we also need to hone a kind of ancient animal awareness housed not only in the mind but in flesh and bone, and in our very genetic makeup. It was common to our ancient tribal ancestors, and in the primates we evolved from. You can see it in the alertness of a cat when it is hunting a bird or mouse, just as it once lit the glint in the eye of those saber tooth tigers of the prehistoric age. This quality is most noticeable in us when we are surprised by a new and dangerous situation, a time when everything around us seems suddenly clear and in focus, when we notice at once every movement and sound and seem able to anticipate what will happen next. This kind of thing occurs without any commentary or abstract thought going on in our minds, just as when there’s a rustling at our feet we know to jump out of the way without first thinking the word “snake.” This is what many call presence, being aware of the vital present moment. The Animást combines this heightened presence with purposeful action and considered response, in order to help shape events and thus consciously cocreate our world. Only the totally aware can make the right choices.... and for the Animást every single act, no matter how big or small, is a conscious choice.
While everyone is born with some capacity for awareness, most will grow up without exercising their inner abilities, or else they’ll actually decide to be less aware in order to get away with less responsibility. To the contrary, Animásts embrace responsibility and spend their entire lives strengthening their abilities and deepening their awareness through deliberate practice. When a baby is growing up, it has to practice walking over and over again before finally getting good at it. The fastest runners are athletes who practice diligently, people who push themselves to do their best and expand their abilities on a daily basis. It’s no different for those Animásts, practicing their awareness skills every moment they aren’t asleep, for so long as they breathe!
And the rewards and delights come alive, for those most aware of life.
Try these simple Animá awareness exercises:
•Always be aware of which way the sun comes up and sets, even in a strange town or when it is cloudy. Whether the moon is waning, waxing or full. The direction that water flows from where you stand and the nearest above ground creek, plus the direction of the wind no matter how lightly it touches your cheek.
•Nature is the best place to practice awareness, even in a wooded backyard or park... but it is not the only place. Practice awakeness every moment that you are not asleep, practice when relaxing as well as when working.
•Attention is a gift we give to ourselves, every time we pay close attention to what’s around us. When walking down the sidewalk, notice what grass or plants grow to either side. Notice the designs where the cement has cracked, and the dandelions that poke their heads up through them. Notice the different sounds of the vehicles coming and going even if you find it unpleasant, and notice and enjoy the diverse songs of the birds even while you’re busy talking.
•Focus on perceiving the world through one physical sense at a time, in order to increase its strength. One way to do this is to blindfold yourself, and then try to find a friend just by the sounds he makes, or find an orange placed near you in the grass by sense of smell alone. Another is to have someone give you bites of food with your eyes closed, then trying to guess what you are eating. It’s not as easy as you might think!
•Wherever you are, notice the the locations of edible plants and life sustaining drinking water. Look out for any sources of potential threats– from dangerous traffic to fallen power lines to sullen faces, icy walkways and suspicious places. Notice every spot where you might be able to hide, and every avenue of escape should the need arise.
•If you know others who are into developing their powers, you can make a game of challenging each other’s skills. It’s fun to have one friend walk through a room when no one is expecting a test, while you are busy and distracted by some task, and then another friend interrupts you to ask you what you noticed. Who just passed through, what were they wearing and what color were their clothes? What else did they do as they walked by? Was there anything in their hand? How did others in the room respond or interact with that person? Were there any clues as to their intention or purpose?
•Watch the people around you. What do their body postures communicate, and do they tell a different story than the person’s facial expressions? Based on their clothes, hair and posture, what do they want us to think about them, and what do they think about themselves? Are their energies focused inward uncertainly, or do they project their energies? If they are projecting their energy and will, what is it that they are trying to effect, direct, change or create? How aware does each person seem to be of the other, and in what ways are they connecting or relating? Try to identify the source of fear in the room and in each person, and the source of gifting and love.
•Practice sensing the presence of resident energies and entities, and the spirit of place. Once you get attuned to feeling the unseen, it becomes like the game where we close our eyes and someone directs us by saying “warmer, warmer” as we get closer and “colder, colder” as we lose our way. The closer you get to real power the more significant, tingly and impossible to ignore it feels, and when you pass by or make a turn in the wrong direction the sensation subsides.
•Notice what is hard, and deliberately get stronger from it. Notice what takes skill and learn from it. Notice the benefits of commitments, and consciously commit to the whole and right.
•Notice what makes you feel comfortable and what makes you uncomfortable.... and remember that comfort can be the bigger disadvantage to a wizard. Our greatest opportunities for power lie through those doors that most disrupt and discomfort us, by those we’re at first afraid to open.
•Always notice the effect you have on people, as well as on the environment around you. What impact does your attitude or example, your attention or neglect, your ideas and acts have on the people you come into contact with, are they better informed or inspired? How does the way you live directly or indirectly impact Earth’s other life forms, the land, water and air for better or worse? Constantly shift your perception and actions to best benefit each other and the world.
•Practice focusing and intensifying your intentions, and then watch what happens. What did you intend, pray or wish for so hard that it seemed to come true? Which friends, ideas, conversations, activities, types of entertainment, or personal habits seem to distract your attention and dilute your intentions, lessening or preventing the desired results?
•Notice not just what alerts or disturbs, but also that which pleasures or calms. That tastes and smells good. That makes us feel good. That stirs the heart and soothes the spirit.
•At the end of every day, try to remember the details of everything that happened, how things looked, acted and felt, and write the details down in an awareness journal. Record not only what you noticed, but how you responded.... and what effects or results you inevitably brought about.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
From out of the mythic, mist draped past a host of heroes and heras beckon us to hear and heed, urge us forward to our own opportunities for heartful heroism. The stories of brave Ulyses and Queen Boudica, the wise Merlin and indomitable Sparticus are not meant to merely entertain us. Nor did our ancestral wizards and warriors intend to spare us our own great struggles, enlightening challenges and soul-satisfying victories! They acted and sacrificed, succeeded and excelled in order to meet the unique threats and critical needs of their people, their lives and times. Our own day and age is no less perilous or in need of able champions than was theirs, and plenty of events arise in our contemporary lives that demand an assertive and valiant response.
If you look in your dictionary you’ll notice that “hero” is one of the few English nouns without a synonym that can substitute for it, there being no other word in our language that conveys the same powerful meaning. Similarly, nothing can substitute for personal heroism when immanent danger or an urgent purpose arise. You can deny your heroism to others out of a sense of duty or humility if it makes you feel better… but anytime you give yourself fully to a mission on which much depends, you’re a hero or hera, simple as that!
One defining element of being a hero is being willing to drop our schedules, abandon comfort and certainty, face our fears, and take genuine risks. It can be heroic just to resist the pressure to fit in at school, because there is a very real risk of that we’ll be shunned if we’re authentic, exposing our real feelings and beliefs. There’s some heroism involved just in studying a practice like Animá, when many people no longer believe in personal integrity, the living earth, spirit or purpose.
The most heroic acts of all are those committed not just for ourselves but for the protection and betterment of our loved ones, our communities and clans, and the other life forms. A time when governments are waging wars against each other and their own people, when personal liberty is being surrendered in hopes of increased safety, when the natural world is rapidly being destroyed, is truly the golden age of heroes. The challenges we face today offer us more chances than ever to use our skills and demonstrate our worth in service. All around us today are examples of nature being trampled for profits, women and children being mistreated, entire countries being plundered and cultures stripped of their diversity and dignity.
The hero in us is called forth into the light, whenever and wherever we encounter ignorance, prejudice, cruelty, injustice or greed… called to act whenever there’s a clear and vital need. To be heroes can mean to heal or create with love, rather than to fight and bleed. The measure of any hero lies in our compassion and the strength of our intent… and in the form and fact of our deeds.
•The work of the Animást is inherently heroic, and all heroism benefits from the skills of the Animást.
•Both Animásts and heroes grow to serve compassionate missions, but neither bend to serve either institutions or men.
•Develop and write up your own heroic code of honor, including:
1) the sort of things you pledge never to do, such as betraying an ally or cause, denying even the most painful truths, or giving up when the going gets rough
2) ways of acting that are clearly inappropriate for a wizard and a potential hero, such as being petty, arrogant or cowardly
3) the various types of indignities and threats you pledge to confront, resist and transform when and where they arise
4) the kinds of people, other life forms, natural areas and sacred places of power, liberties and rights that you can promise to protect and nourish, further and celebrate
•Develop a plan to deal with each situation as it comes up, intensely focusing your wits as well as your special energies. Then be prepared to set your plans aside as the threats morph and the situations change.
•Maximize your knowledge and abilities in preparation for heroic events… but no matter how powerful you ever you need not depend on yourself alone. Enlist human allies and aides, tap the wisdom of the ancients that still resides in your bones, call on the spirits of place for help, and invoke the Great Spirit or Goddess by whatever name.
•It is the purpose of both Animásts and heroes to attempt the impossible.
•Always set out to exceed your imagined limitations. Nothing is wholly impossible, regardless of the odds stacked against us.
•The greater the odds against us, the more important our deeds and the greater any accomplishments.
•Not all heroic acts are completely successful as intended. What makes you a hero is how hard you try…. plus your noble reasons why.
•Live a heroic life, and future generations will tell your story as you have read and retold the stories of those courageous ones who came before.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Shamans, seers and healers of many diverse cultures and faiths have been prophesying the future for millennia. Some of these foretellings have been heeded, others have fostered entire movements towards mitigating or solving a potential tragedy beforehand. Indeed, sensing the future can contribute to anxiety as well as certainty and satisfaction, and it’s value ultimately lies in the degree to which we can make use of the information and vision we’re given.
Some people are born with a greater sensitivity and propensity for prophecy than others. These gifted folks have hold of an advantage for sure, but they bear an increased load as well. With foreknowledge comes responsibility, the ability and necessity to respond. Both the depth of such gifts and their implications has always guaranteed that the prophet would be a rare individual, often simultaneously revered by the community or tribe a kept at a comfortable distance. It must seem easier to avoid the prophet and what they see within us and ahead of us... but in times of trouble and transformation such as these, we are wise to turn to the insightful visions of those who appear most destined and assigned to know. Amongst predictions of apocalypse, ascension, scientific transhumanism and the intervention of extraterrestrials, are voices resonant with the teaching and implorings of the inspirited natural world... and it’s to these we must dearest cleave.
If we’re to further progressive values and preserve a diversity of spiritual, cultural and biological expression, we need to set out a plan of involvement and action that is informed not only by history and personal sensibility but also by a predictably evolving future. For all its surprises and sudden turns, everything that happens in life does so in relationship to every other being, energy and occurrence. This can be shown in many ways including the new science of turbulence, mapping a process that was recently considered not only chaotic but utterly unpredictable. Accurate prophecies arise not so much from out of body revelations as from enhanced recognition of these kinds of patterns of relationships, of expansion and contraction, gifting and need, cause and effect. While trance work can get one out of their mind and dramatically broaden perception, the specific ability we are talking about is more of a genetically encoded, bodily sensing of the endless interconnections and purposeful direction of what was, what is, and what will one day be.
It would be ill advised to ignore any available wisdom or special abilities considering all that is at stake, not just personal satisfaction or growth but also the fate of planetary ecosystems and existing systems of conscious belief. Nor should we defer entirely to the fevered Seers, what is for us all a native seed and skill to be strengthened through practice and put to use for both ours and the greater good. In the heart of even the most confused, ambivalent or externally directed person there resides a visionary seeking to recognize and internalize all the available mysteries of the universe. And for even the tribal shaman, medicine woman or man born and trained for their sacred duty, it is the still through the empathic heart that they can remember, foresee and understand.
We can increase our prophetic skills through intense focus and constant advances in perceptual and empathic recognition. Since all things and events form patterns, all patterns can be depended upon to leave traces, tokens of significance. These traces are what we call “signs,” and “reading” the future is not only revelation but a reading of this complex text of unfolding life. Signs are tracks— whether left behind by animals, by unfolding human processes or manifest Spirit. If we look closely we can learn not only the character of that which left them, but also the direction it proceeds from, and the direction it is heading: its likely origins, and its probable destination. All sign conveys meaning, as much as we are able and willing to grasp.
An omen is a sign of what has yet to happen. When these signs are less than clear, we call it “foreshadowing.” When one is consciously aware of the signs influencing them, there is a mating of informed presaging and inexplicable premonition. Connections are inevitably made at a subconscious level, so that we are able to “follow the dots” from where we are to where things are going. It is spirit, the animating force of nature that speaks... not a booming tenor ringing from out of the sky, but as a celebration of the spiraling self knowledge and self direction of the universe heard from within us more than from without.
Contrary to what we may have been told, omens are intrinsically neither “good” nor “bad.” Whether unfolding events are fortunate or unfortunate, benevolent or harmful, depends on not only our situation, attitude and perspective, but also on our ability to employ the raw energies and incumbent lessons of whatever comes to pass. An omen is a prognosis and prescription, as well as an augury of any difficulties to come. Truly, signs and omens are not only indications, but suggestions. Every sign is a call for intentional relationship and response, containing important information on how best to proceed. And every omen is more than a warning— it’s an opportunity to intentionally and compassionately influence future events.
Omens are real, of that there can be no doubt. Yet because preconception rules the contemporary mind, omens are all too easily imagined or misinterpreted. One who is afraid, will read into every omen the imminent arrival of that which they fear. One who is unsure will tend to interpret all kinds of omens as fortuitous, as they look for the assurance they need to go on. And how we relate and respond even to the real omens in our lives is still up to us. An omen is a reminder of choice, and every moment is a decisive moment.
By tapping our inherent prophetic powers, we evolve our personal medicine and leave victimhood and blind obedience behind, pursuing our destiny rather then ignobly succumb to fate. “Fate” is something we claim to suffer or bear, destiny something we help to bring about. Fate is what we accept, destiny something we rise for, follow and assist.
One’s destiny is no “kismet,” no chance lot or division of fortunes. It is embracing all that we are and all that we can be... in alignment, and in cooperation, with the holistic intentions and forces of Earth and Spirit. It is our original directive, as well as our personal potential to fulfill our terrestrial and spiritual opportunities and assignments.
We should feel emboldened, knowing beyond question that we are each born with the heart and power necessary to complete these assignments. No matter how unenlightened or unnatural one’s surroundings, we are inevitably afforded the crucial moments, venues and teachers required to develop the most needed skills. And we’re each entrusted with the essential and fundamental lessons, whether we opt to make full use of them or not.
Human destiny may be predisposed, but never preordained. It’s predirected, launched into a particular motion with a special direction and purpose, but it is not predetermined. It works with us more than for us, and its full realization is dependent on our conscious complicity. It’s a collaborative effort between the existing wave, opportunity, momentum and the conscious volunteer. No destiny is unalterable, but nor is it complete without our active participation. It’s a an opportunity realized, a dimension to grow into, a mission to complete. Destiny is our personal planetary song, but it is still up to us whether or not we get up and put our hearts into the ongoing dance. How well we fulfill our individual role in this cosmic, rhythmic choreography depends on our intention and followthrough, informed by the past and present experiences of this living world, and empowered by the advantage and hope that grounded prophecy provides.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“We belong to the ground, it is our power and we must stay close to it; or maybe we will get lost.”
Walking down this canyon has always felt special to me, the way it stills my thoughts, awakens my senses and deepens my awareness. The sense of intimacy and eros, family, pack and alliance. Of sacredness and timelessness. Of worthiness and assignment. And there’s nowhere in the canyon, and thus nowhere in the world, that is more powerful for me than at the base of a certain set of cliffs. It’s where the ancient ones conducted many of their ceremonies, and where we too do what passes for ritual– including magical outdoor weddings and communion with our loved ones who have passed on. It’s where we go to understand and embrace our losses, as well as to give thanks for our gifts. To seek solace when needed, and to feel less alone.
I was either raising kids without the help of a mate or living all by myself for the first fifteen years spent here in these mountains. It shouldn’t have to be so hard, but for me answering the call of home meant an end to my first marriage when she grew impatient with the homesteader lifestyle, what she called her “cultural isolation” and the simple interests and ways of the handful of folks in the nearby town of Reserve. A number of sweethearts followed once I began touring the country, performing music and giving talks.... but most were ready to leave in a week or two and none stayed. A dozen years of river flowed by my humble cabin before a woman arrived who seemed not only excited to love me but unlikely to leave. One of the hardest moments of a decade’s many heartaches, was realizing how she was barely conscious of the canyon miracles unfolding around her, that she wasn’t really connected to the spirit, mission or needs of the land I loved.... and that no matter how much it hurt, I’d have to ask her to go.
The first morning without her found me stumbling towards the dawn-lit cliffs for what felt like the millionth time, with no particular idea or agenda in mind. What starts out as scenic and alluring at a distance, becomes up close something more like looming and imposing. There at the base the impulse is always to look up, and it must have been so even for those first human inhabitants of the canyon trained to seek spirit in the ground as much as the sky. And craning my neck towards the forms and fissures above, through choking tears, came these unexpected words “I promise, no matter what, I’m yours. Even if I end up penniless with no one here to love me....” Then, in almost a scream, “I will never leave you!” And in turn, I accepted the canyon’s assurance that I belong.... and that as lonely as I might be, I would never be alone.
Contracted: receiving the support of the land and pledging the self in return. There was of course another contract as well, whereby I– then a young man with more attitude than common sense– signed my name on a set of papers that indentured me for fifteen years. As with most or all real estate agreements, it stipulated that if I was more than thirty days late with any of the semiannual payments, the land would automatically revert back to the seller. No matter that the engine of my camper bus was now in a truck belonging to the county deputy, or that I had no other vehicles and no way to leave with my stuff if I ever failed to pay. In order to stay close to the land I’d gone from selling expensive paintings in our gallery in Taos to working minimum wage jobs doing everything from spreading seeds on logged acreage to making adobe bricks, with friendly immigrant workers I could barely understand. My part of the bargain involved doing whatever it took to get up the money for the land payments, and the seller was likewise bound to turn over control of a most special place.
Of course, as has been said in many ways in many different tongues– one does not own the land, the land owns us. It’s nothing short of ludicrous to talk in terms of possessing and controlling ground which predates us by billions of years, which will continue to exist in one form or another after we pass away and for many billions more. In truth we can only possess that which we contain, and it is the land that contains us. Nonetheless “buying” land is one of the best ways of ensuring that it will be respected and taken care of, or withheld from destructive development. Pristine sections can be set aside and preserved. Damaged lands can be had cheap and brought back to health again. Properties adjoining state or federal lands can serve as place of transition for folks looking to experience the wilds, a base camp or learning center, a point from which to embark. And in every case land covenants can be signed that help define and determine appropriate land use, conservation easements can be assigned in order to prevent future harmful practices, and nonprofit land trusts can be formed for the sole purpose of ensuring the integrity of the property for generations to come.
Nonetheless, the most important contract is not that between two people.... it’s the reciprocal commitment between human and land, made and fulfilled in particular places. As with contracts between individuals or entities, both parties make promises in exchange for specific benefits. For centuries the land has kept its part of the bargain by offering up nourishment, shelter and instruction while we’ve largely defaulted as a species on our reciprocal obligations. We’ve largely failed our task to be the planet’s most sensitive receptors, to temper knowledge with humility and wisdom, or to properly give sacrament to, give thanks for, preserve or celebrate that land we as a species have evolved in contractual partnership with.
With every gift comes a responsibility to its spiritual and physical “care and feeding.” This goes for the soil itself, elemental to all life, and all that grows from its bosom or calls its rocks and trees home. Responsibilities to the plant and animal species we consume, to the water we drink and the air we breathe. The responsibility to insure that which we take is neither diluted nor despoiled, to give back equal to that which we are given. And whether we choose to call it that or not, it includes a responsibility to engage in some form of prayerful communion. Responsibility: the ability to respond.
Whether acknowledged or not, humanity is locked into a hereditary contract, and we’re collectively liable for any mistakes. We’re not slapped with this responsibility nor strapped with it like unwilling beasts of burden, but rather we consciously take on the caregiving assignment. We are held responsible, the way a mother holds its child even as she demands it take credit for its actions. When the Hopi speak of a cause for the current period of global imbalance they call Koyaanisquatsi, they cite our kind’s failure to live up to what is our end of the bargain. As a species we tend to take more than we give, permit a heavy-handed remaking of the planet for the sake of comfort, and stand mute as one life form after another fall victim to the trends and byproducts of our population and lifestyles. As a result of the progressive abrogation of our contract, humanity ultimately cannot help but suffer in direct proportion to the suffrage of the land. What we can do as individuals is to consciously acknowledge the implicit agreement, and give every day to a personal honoring of its terms.
According to this contract we are not proprietors but responsible servants and full partners with an equal investment and stake in its lasting health and wholeness. Nor are we “good shepherds” making omnipotent managerial decisions for the perceived good of the rest of creation, so much as “caretakers”– witnessing and buttressing the needs of other life forms, of creatures and places with their own calling, their own sense of purpose, direction, and membership. Caretaking: taking care, taking ever so carefully, and never taking for granted. These duties are both custodial and priestly, tending to the energetic as well as practical well-being of the land. It’s similar to the way a doctor might consider one’s emotional as well as physical condition, but requiring greater restraint. A physician aggressively seeks out and confronts what he considers to be maladies. On the other hand a caretaker is sometimes called upon to act assertively, and other times to step back and allow some process take its course. The intuitive knowledge of when to interfere and when not to requires an intense period of familiarizing oneself with the biological makeup, natural and human history, special energies, needs and proclivities of one’s place. Rightful decisions– decisions that can positively effect future generations of humans and non humans alike– proceed from silence.... arise from a great listening.
Whereas the Sweet Medicine People once spent their summers planting and tending corn along the Rio here, my Project partners and I give part of the warm months to revegitating the canyon with long missing native species. The willow was one of the first to make a comeback, sprouting waist high as soon as I began chasing off the cattle, and soon a twenty foot high thicket once the four strand fence went up. Stalks chewed down to the ground nevertheless continued to draw nourishment through an extensive and undamaged root system, propelling new growth skyward the first full season free of predation. To hasten their comeback and to fortify the bare riverbanks against seasonal floods, we’ve carefully cut branches from the established bushes and stuck them at intervals to take off in the damp soil. Wildflower seeds from the year before are planted by poking a hole in the ground with a stick, barely bending over to drop two kernels in each waiting womb. While not quite the same pleasure as a garden these trustees require no watering, weeding or battling with insects. Success in the reintroduction of natives is a result of protection from forces outside the ecosystem, but also a species’ built-in relationship with their home environment– in balance with that which they feed on, and that which feeds on them.
The hardest part is figuring out which species belong and which are destructive or over competitive invaders. Some of the exotics came across the Bering Straits, with the first human arrivals to the Americas. Domestic dogs carried their primitive packs, and Asian seed stock caught rides in the fur gaiters around their legs and the capes that hung from their backs. Mullein, with its soft, fuzzy leaves, seems like a benign though not indigenous presence. Others, like horehound and the tamarisk tree quickly dominate any riparian area they sail into, colonizing foreign soils, choking the life out of every native population. Like Columbus and Cortez, these botanical opportunists are adept at making the transition from guest to master. In the Southeast it’s the kudzu vine, which once having escaped its ornamental plots in the suburbs, it’s now fast becoming the dominant species, climbing and eventually choking the standing trees. Rabbits released into Australia as a meat source quickly took over and decimated the available vegetation. Sailing vessels acted as arks for the emigration of not only viruses and bacterium, but the opportunistic Norwegian Rat. So destructive was the rat once introduced to the Hawaiian Islands that they decided to import their nemesis, the mongoose. The only problem was that the mongoose finds it much easier to catch rare species of songbirds than rats and has come close to decimating them. Failing to learn from our mistakes, our latest gambit involves the planned introduction of lifeforms never before seen on this planet, the products of advanced genetic engineering.
Some more mundane intruders like tamarisk (European salt cedar) pose no great threat to their home turfs, but once released into North America they develop a biological hegemony in the riparian areas, to the point where it’s the only remaining tree along many of the rivers of the Southwest. Worse still, they are both fast growing and herbicide resistant, and they release a shower of mineral salts that make the soil inhospitable to any competing shoots. Unchecked they soon smother the native willows and immature cottonwoods, filling the ravines and river bottoms with their billowing pink blossoms.
Beautiful blossoms, we’ve got to admit. There were none at all in this rivershed when I first moved there, but now they’re beginning to crop up among the beeweed. Gorgeous blossoms, in fact. But we’re easily jerked back to reality when we recall the Rio Grande River system clogged by a single-species forest, a vast monoculture, a jungle of nothing but tamarisk. Too many of the same kind of flower, too much of the same uniform color, in a veritable holocaust of beauty.
For months we struggled with what to do, until some of the slender trees were well over our heads. We wondered if it wasn't enough that there was anything at all growing, after so many generations of grazing and die-back? And besides, don't all plants, like all people have migrants for ancestors, and thus a right to flourish in a new place? When we finally went down to dig them up, they felt as smooth and sentient as any creature, as vulnerable in the face of our attack as other plants were in the face of the tamarisk’s own territorial campaigns.
Just as bad was the horehound incursion, seeds hitchhiking up onto the mesa stuck to our socks, moving through the rest of the county in the tails of horses and the alfalfa hay they eat. It looks so lovely at first, in patches of short ground-cover that smell sweetly when walked upon, pungent leaves perfect for brewing up a batch of old-fashioned horehound cough drops. It isn't long however, before they form a solid crusty plane of yard-high vegetation too thick to walk through. Where the ground around our cabin and below the cliffs were once graced by desert mariposa and soaptree yucca, soon there was only horehound. Prickle-poppy and evening primrose, nettle and mallow, cushion cactus and tahoka daisy were being pushed out of their own neighborhoods, denied access to soil and sun in a hostile takeover bid. We felt we had no choice but to strike back in defense of biological diversity, accepting the hands-on responsibility of removing them one plant at a time, sharing their pain at being ripped up by the roots.
The beaver are another case in point. In a balanced river ecology they’re an aid to the ecosystem by slowing the river and raising the water table, and when the ponds eventually fill in with soil they become meadows that are highly attractive to a wide range of wildlife. Beavers are wetlands restoration experts, but like all “experts” they can be the cause of costly errors. The little fuzzballs also require up to six acres of woods to sustain themselves, plus are notorious for cutting down trees that they strangely neither eat nor build with. In a mature riparian forest thick with mixed-age cottonwoods and willows they are a welcome addition, but in the early stages of restoration and reforestation efforts they can be a terrible hindrance. For years we had to remove the few that moved downstream to the sanctuary while the forest grew back, but now we’re host to a family that we think the land might sustain.
Not all decisions are as difficult, but we find the whole concept of "environmental restoration" a touchy one. As obviously and totally beneficial at it can be to rebuild salmon streams or replant clearcut hills, the very notion of restoration implies that humans know what’s best.. something there is little evidence of. The other side of the argument is that humans have forever affected the world around them, and that maybe only by taking responsibility for that role can we mitigate our impact. The caretaker must be prepared to do whatever is called for. We’re accountable not only of our actions, but also for the results of what we have yet to do.
Only a small population of people live out in the countryside but the agreement, the contract remains the same. To be taken care of, one must take care. Some of the fondest of my early memories involve the front yard gardens that my father tended. I don’t recall any happy-topped carrots or broadleaf lettuce in the gardens, nothing that could safely fill the belly, naught but food for the soul. In the only truly creative enterprise I ever saw him commit to, what the man gardened was color. A host of reds from ruddy to brilliant predominated in one bed, while the hedges and flower rows along the sides of the house featured variations on pearl and ivory, lavender and fuchsia. Different plants blossomed at different times of the year, so that with careful planning there would never be a week without a display of floral brilliance. And he gardened shapes— stars and ovals, trumpets and bells, lily sheaths and the folds of the roses running up the wood fence next to the sidewalk. The pansies were always Grandmother’s favorites, so there had to be room made for them. Others were selected for their meaning in one historic culture or another, a species to stir up happiness, and another for success. All took a substantial amount of his time, quietly watering each plant with a hose when the sprinklers would have just as easily reached. Some more out of place than others, some more vulnerable than the rest, but all required care.
As a kid I could never come to terms with the mowing of the lawn, turning sensuous wind-dancer stalks into a green flattop that felt prickly to the bared feet. But I loved the flowers. I picture them when I think about what it means to take on the hereditary role of caretaker, a role meant for every one of us breathing the air, eating of the bounty of the planet, heating our homes with nonrenewable fuels. If we take care by adjusting our lifestyles, consuming less for the purpose of reducing our negative impact on the supporting world, then we must also include in our duties the pleasurable honoring of sensate life, the purveyance of beauty, the encouragement of a diverse flowering in our everyday lives.
And next, no matter where we are, we learn to identify with and care for our home-ground. We need to develop the capacity to make the truly difficult decisions, the hard-edged choices. As with the horehound in our canyon one must decide both what to incorporate, and what to exclude. Many of the things we would own may be inappropriate for a life in harmony with nature and our own natural cycles. Much of what we do may be taking us away from our path, distracting us from the richness of the moment and pressing us into a virtual rather than vital reality. Some of the people we care about in life may prove to be a handicap to our focused practice, or act in ways that dishonor the spirit of place we’ve finally learned to recognize and interact with. Our contract includes a provision for the surpassing of plan and habit, for consciously bearing the agony and ecstasy of right action.
As individuals, families and neighborhoods we take an active interest in the health of the area where we live, becoming partially culpable for its problems and taking credit for its improvement by virtue of an unblinking awareness. We can take care of the land we live on whether we own it or not, whether its an acre of breathing soil or the patches of green surrounding our apartments. We can co-caretake any forested areas nearby, and the regional watercourse no matter how far away. The community park is just that, and its well-being is in the hands of a concerned public.
The fact is that the only workable politics function at the grassroots level. That the moral jurisdiction belongs to those who actually live in a given place, and who cherish it the most. That to really protect somewhere we need to be able to hear it, feel it, know it and respond to it. And that these things requires we actually be there, body and soul. I’ve come to realize that any realistic hope for cultural, political and ecological relief lies in a radical shift in our elemental values and primary modes of perception.... that it lies in our intimate personal relationship with the forces that made us and the places that allow us to be. In our contract, and in our promise.
Caretaking, after all, is taking things personally, and caring. Caring for that which owns us, feeds us, charms us, encompasses and includes us.
Daring, in fact, to love.... so.... much!
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
We know that the Southwest is home to a high number of quality whole-foods markets, as well as some of the finest eateries in the entire country. What we may not have noticed are the diverse native foods often found growing at the base of their stately adobe walls, or concealed among the exotic grasses that border the parking lot. Rewilding our flower beds and bursting up through the cracks in the sidewalks are delicious salad “fixin’s” like Dandelion and Dock. And on the way to buy our organic produce we likely walk or drive past examples of the diverse indigenous gourds, grains and greens that the ancient native peoples sought. Collecting a portion of one’s dinner from nearby mountain meadows or neighborhood yards, we gather not only sustenance but taste and tradition.... gather up our thoughts and spirits, memories and moments.
Common to the area are Wild Celery greens which are delicious steamed with onion, Plantain leaves for frying, and the prolific Quelites (Lamb’s Quarters) that can be dried in the Summer and reconstituted in soups and sauces the rest of the year. A prime source of information are the elders of any region, particularly in the Hispanic community where familiarity with the land and a passion for fine foods have have helped keep the tradition of gathering alive. There are also a number of good books on edible plant identification, and workshops such as ours that teach hands-on collection and gourmet preparation. One of the benefits of eating wild, after all, may be the amazing flavors they impart. Watercress is a tasty plant popular with health-minded buyers, high in vitamin B and iron, that’s found in many of the less impacted creeks and rivers. We also have wild grape whose leaves are great whether cooked or raw. Taking a hint from the Mediterranean cookbooks, we love to stuff them with steaming yummies for bite size dinner treats.
Our partner Loba is not only a competent chef, she’s also one of those special sensualists who revels in the endless new combinations of ingredients, and of these she may love her feral feasts the best. Each year she cooks or preserves the bounty of our isolated river canyon: Red and Sweet Clover, high protein Amaranth and dandy Dock, Beeplant and magic Mint, Yucca flowers for stir fries and prickly pear fruits for syrup and jam. Puffballs, Boletes and Shaggy Mane mushrooms. Tomatillos, Mustard seeds. Black Walnuts and Juniper berries. Imagine if you will pesto with wild oregano, clover or mint leaves. Suckerfish sushi and hearty crawdad stew. Hand decorated jars of pickled purslane. Wild grape jelly crepes. Prickly pear buttermilk pie and yucca fruit crisp. Browned Pinon cookies. Garlicky Beeplant ravioli with local goat cheese in the early Fall. Stir fried Stinging Nettles and crisp salads of wild Watercress, both picked in mid Winter. And fresh out of the stove some early morn in July– a wild mulberry pie!
Any indigenous person would tell us how eating wild is like taking into ourselves the energy and power of the land itself– the tendencies and sensitivities, capacities and qualities of wildness.
I’ve seen how every little bit that we’re able to subsist off the land increases our confidence in ourselves and our ability to survive. And even in the best of times we can eat not only cheaper but better, by adding some foods we’ve gathered to those ingredients we buy. We soon figure out which months to harvest which foods, and when to collect their seeds to help disperse or plant. We learn to recognize the soil and moisture requirements of the various species, and how much sun and shade each needs. We also notice when certain human activities have degraded those conditions, and may feel moved to do our part to protect, tend or restore the remaining habitat.
The wonderful flavors of the wild call out to us, invite our participation in their native dance of delight. We might consider this as we’re driving past what appear to be indiscernible patches of roadside greenery, or while walking by those curly-leafed plants lining the local acequia. Coming to know the native edible foods of any region is to become more intimate and familiar with the land, its seasons, its song. There is perhaps no tastier way for us to come to know ourselves.... or to know we belong.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
The smell is unmistakable, not unlike a farmer’s fertilized fields right after irrigating. It is carried on the attendant winds to the noses of anyone and everyone awakened to life, even in the valleys where the river runs wide and well away from businesses and homes. It is the wafting smell of decomposition, of mud mixed with organic matter in the process of being broken down by bacteria and mold, of rotting grass and willows dislodged by anxious currents... the amorous odor of plant sex and procreation, of the deaths that birth new life. It is all the stronger within the narrow confines of a canyon, this murky, scandalous scent splashing against the sides of the cliffs, rising up and washing over the benches and mesas like heady invisible waves.
It is not the smell, however, that wakes me from my sleep in the dead of night. It is that sound, that terribly loud rushing of water like a rumbling train shaking the bedrooms of farm house boarders. In the city one learns to sleep comfortably under the blanketing whoosh and hum of highways, and it’s said that over time the NY State Park volunteers even get used to the deafening roar of voluminous Niagara Falls. What is alarming is the sudden contrast, with the the Rio Frisco normally running so slow that it can barely be heard. If every river has its song, the Frisco could be said to play a soft ballad, a gentle tune hummed by cowboys to calm a herd made nervous by distant flashes of lightning, or else an amorous Spanish corrido sung outside some señorita’s window while her father sleeps. In June, one has to put their ear down close to the ground to hear the languid passage of water through the tickled cattails and reeds, or search out the sudden turns where it tumbles and gurgles over moss covered rock. Now in August, I throw off the covers at the sound and stand shirtless under racing clouds and motionless stars, trying to judge the width and speed of the river in the scant light they provide.
We have guests arriving for a Wild Foods event, and they will get more of an adventure than they bargained for. Rather than a leisurely stroll down the canyon – passing through calf-deep crossings of crystalline water – my partners walk them down a steep forested mountainside on a narrow elk trail, and I will shuttle them in a raft two at a time across a rushing sepia flow. It is not a “raging” current as some might describe, for carries with it no anger. More accurately, the river is like a happy headstrong child, running full speed with a big smile on its face, howling too loudly to hear a mother’s pleas to stop.
For as long as people have settled near rivers, humans have suffered the effects of periodic floods. Fields of much needed food have washed away, and at times so have the houses and barns of those who planted them.
Standing on the banks of the Rio Frisco, we all sense the degree to which we are truly on the edge, not just between land and water but the known and the unknown, the expected and the surprising, the habitual and the magical. It is the edge between full-on living, and the state of being any less than fully alive. It’s not danger that has our guests so wide-eyed or prompts the wide-stretched smiles on their faces, but rather, the disruption of limiting patterns and preconceptions. The flooding river has transported them to the edge, a state and way of being that they will each do their best to walk back in their cities, at their jobs, in their homes.
The edge is the milieu of evolution. And for we humans it is the place of conscious choice and change, the exceeding of imagined limitations, the stretch in yoga, the dancer or gymnast’s leap into excellence, the moment of inspiration and the field of accomplishment. It is where we – like life itself – dare to take chances, to try something new, to envision and explore. The edge is the state of deepened presence, heightened awareness and awakened senses – of fascination and enchantment, creativity and revelation, passion and engagement, purpose and commitment – and thus of manifestation and satisfaction, realization and reward. It is there that life presents all its colors and flavors, that opportunities present themselves and nest-bound baby birds dare a leap of faith into the imposing but beckoning sky.
It’s clear that some people more than others seek out and thrive on the experience of the edge. These include warrior women and men who sign up for more than one stretch in elite military units, as well as peace activists bravely protesting a U.S. waged or funded war in spite of public pressure and government surveillance. Philanthropists who spend their inheritance on revolutionary ideas or deeds, and master burglars who don’t need the money the steal. Children undergoing rites of passage, adults signing up for four days of solitude and fasting on what is often called a Vision Quest. And the more mundane examples of hot air balloonists, mountain climbers and downhill skiers. Of struggling artists and musicians. Of women working so-called “men’s jobs,“ and men who made an art of being sensitive. Empathic and motivated teachers in sometimes unresponsive public school systems. Single working mothers who could have had it easy by staying in a compromising marriage.
As individuals, we are furthest out on the edge when we quit a soul-deadening job with no certainty of finding a more meaningful one. Or when we stay with a low paying position as a gardener or preschool teacher because it our greatest gift to the world and best use of our life. When we move to a different city or out into the country, in order to fulfill our hopes and dreams. When we wake up every morning in some special home, grateful and pledging to stay. When we take time from talking at the table, in order to intently focus on every taste. For the couple in relationship, the edge is where they continually discover new things about one another, and where they work on new or challenging projects together. It is where they require the best of each other, instead of avoiding every difficult test. The edge is where they go to either heal a bad relationship or else to end it, as well as the place where promises of forever are both made and kept. For all of us, it is the shore from which we embark onto new ways of thinking, being and doing. It is always from there that we extend ourselves, exceed and excel.
When we launch the raft, the current starts to hurry us downstream while I paddle my hardest to get us across. We reach the opposite shore a considerable ways down the canyon, able to neither predict nor ensure where we’ll touch ground. If the edge ever seems frightening, it is because it is there where we are most clearly not in control. Of course, another way of looking at it would be to say that while we are agents of spirit and change, we are never really in control, and that the edge is where we are blessedly freed of any such illusions, where the real world takes precedence.
The river running through our teaching center is generally low, all but for a couple of weeks in an average year. It is seldom that anyone gets their knees wet, and we can almost always drive someone in who has trouble walking. With the glad comfort and relative ease, we and our guests have to be all the more careful not to lose sight of the edge, or of the vista of possibilities beyond. It becomes an important art and task to remain in the frontiers of insight, experience and transition.
Without attention the edge recedes, e ven for a devoted adventurer or someone living in the wilderness like my partners and I do. The world is forever moving, not just spinning but swelling and tumbling, shifting, growing, evolving, advancing. The edge is where we keep pace, where we are sentient participants rather than after-the-fact observers of objectified phenomena tossed about in passing time's spreading wake, an echo some song left behind.
It is important to remember that walking the edge is not the same as being addicted to risky behavior, or being "edgy," nervous or apprehensive. Nor does it mean always pushing hard without rest or relaxation. Instead, it means to make every thought, word and action deliberate, and therefore consciously intentional and meaningful. We can do that in a hammock, with extreme awareness of how much it nourishes us and how wonderful it feels to swing. We can become intimate with the edge through the ways we interact with our parents or children, by making all conversation meaningful and truly focusing on the person we're communicating with. Through our noticing the sensation of rain as it kisses our upturned faces. And through the whole-body awareness of a lover's embrace.
Today, our canyon guests are being alerted by circumstance and significance, by high water, stiff knees and mountain grandeur. By the threat of a slow leak in one of the raft's chambers, the scent of the bogs, the beating of their hearts, and the encouraging clapping of brilliant green cottonwood leaves. What they are being alerted to is their own senses and immediate environment, to potential problems and exciting scenarios, to unsated hungers and deepest needs, to their gifts and abilities, to the swirling paisley patterns in the water and the relative solidity of the never-to-be-taken-for-granted land.
Getting to the other side, of course, is always just a beginning. I need to grab the bent willows and swing us sideways, unload my guests and their baggage, and pick the best trail through the woods to the cabins. It is the same with life, it seems, with each new crossing being start of something rather than the end. We commit to a destination or goal whenever we inhabit the edge, even when that destination is simply a greater realized self, or family, or home. It is from the edge of the expected that we each depart, and from which platform our glad return is launched.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“There is no division between where we live and what we are.”
The Anima Sanctuary is a restored riparian wilderness, a river ecosystem made healthy again through the reintroduction of cottonwoods and willows, cattail and clump grass. Ringtail cats cavort next to splashing muskrats, and fish make love under an expanse of heron wings. With each new season, increasing numbers of plants have made their way back home here, and every Spring comes the sound of yet another bird species I’ve never heard. With every reintroduction the land becomes more of what it once was, and in this way, more itself.
Like this land, I too have lost parts of myself, only to regain them through practice and prayer, personal insistence and the passage of time. Things such as the willingness to laugh, and the ability to cry. The honest depths of agony, and far extremes of joy. My inner animal, and the reason for being. The inclination to play, and the patience to stay. It’s a good thing, because the longer I’m here, the better able I am to hear the will and whisperings of the Earth.... and more myself I am.
Of course, the walk downriver hasn’t always been easy. Although some seasons I’ve leapt about, moving rocks for soil berms as if work had no weight, when I've been ill it hasn't been so easy. But in either case, I’ve never been truly healthier since coming here to home and purpose: knowing who I really am, what I most need to be doing, and where I most certainly belong. Indeed, what is to be healthy, but to be whole: a balanced unity of gifts and needs, heart and mind, vision and action. Gaia teaches that good health isn’t the absence of trauma or pain, but rather, the most complete embodiment of our authentic selves. The depth of sensation, emotion and experience. The fullness of expression and response. The fulfillment of our passions and our purpose, our destiny and our dreams. It’s how we live, not how long. “Wellness” means living well: consciously and compassionately, artfully and purposefully.
It isn’t disease that makes us unwhole, for pain makes us more aware of our bodies and feelings, and the way both our lifestyles and our immediate environments are affecting us. Suffering tempers our skills, tests our resolve, and strengthens our will. Debility teaches us humility, and infirmity counsels patience. The loss of one sensory organ leads to a heightening of the others. At its worst, a deadly virus does nothing but return us to the earth we arose from, extend from, and belong to. We are made unwhole not by death, but the failure to fully live. By that which dilutes our focus, weakens our intention, or dishonors our spirit. That which makes us doubt our instincts and intuition, significance or value. We are made unwhole by the suppression of our feelings, and the repression of our needs. By the subjugation of our animal beings. We have to give up certain aspects and components of our selves, in order to fit into society’s mold. It is the loss or neglect of these parts that contributes to our greatest dis-ease: our imagined separation from the rest of the living world. And with their re-membering and reclamation, we take the first of many steps towards the necessary cure.
Likewise, the Earth isn’t made any less— or any less healthy— by the eroding of mountain rock into fertile valley soil, or the death of a cottontail in the jaws of a fox. Or even the shredding of forests by an erupting volcano, which relatively quickly grow back. Even the natural extinction of species is only a recycling of the parts into the whole, each pruning back resulting in a new burst of growth, an opportunity for new color and form. To the degree that it is sickened it is not because of the annihilation of individual life forms, so much as the overall reduction of biological, cultural and topographical diversity. The extincting of species for no reasons other than obliviousness and greed. The appropriation of habitat, so there’s little place left for the wildlife to spring back. The monocultures of agribusiness, and the genetic manipulation of life. And it’s not just the killing off of native songbirds, but the hundreds of indigenous languages being lost to neglect. The defacing of the planet with asphalt, and the defaming with plastics. By our failing to notice Gaia’s every miracle and gift, every hint of wind, the opening of a sidewalk blossom, the dance of a floating leaf. And by our forgetting to give thanks. We make the world sick with our neglect of self and planet, the dishonoring of Spirit, and the conceptual and physical dismembering of the which was one.
We say the “integrity” of a structure is compromised, and perhaps made unsafe, if any portion is degraded or removed. It is the same with a person or an ecosystem. The health of people or places increases with the diversity and magnitude of their expression. Thus any reduction in diversity impinges on the integrity of the whole— and the role of the social and ecoactivist becomes one not only of resistance but restoration and reimmersion.
It all starts with us literally “coming to our senses.” Our creature senses are organs of reintegration, and when opened and heightened they bring the world we’re integral to even closer. It is taste that can stir our gratitude, sight that can awaken awe, touch that can mend the imagined separation between body and soul, self and place. Touch, through which we feel. Touch that heals. Our sensory and emotional contact inspires the protection, nourishment and celebration of that which we’ve engaged. It can result in forests defended, trees replanted, and native grasses gently stroked and sung to!
Our future personal, social and ecological health may hinge on our personal integrity, and the surviving integrity of the natural world that we love. Like the extirpated Mexican Gray Wolf or the defamed spotted owl, we seek to be and belong. For us, to be reintegrated is to be accepted back within the identity of the Gaian whole, to exist and act in harmony with tribal human community and the community of nature. We still commit ourselves to herbs and spells, good food and real magick in our quest to stay physically well and able. But real health is a state of being at one with the needs, expression and spirit of not only our physical and energetic beings, but with the living breathing Earth as well... engaged in the endless adventure and fulfillment of our awakened lives and sacred deaths.
By learning to wholly be aware, wholly serve, we intentionally rejoin the Whole. And it is through this bringing back together of disparate and damaged parts— of self and of Earth— that we never have to feel apart again.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
When people write us about their experiences here in the canyon, they may or may not mention the power of our insights or the impact of my counsel.... but they seldom fail to thank us for the food they ate and the attention they got. Understandably, words can’t be expected to make as much of an impression on us as those naked communications and revelations garnered through the five awakened senses. The talks I give suggest the importance of fully tasting the passing moments of our lives, while Loba’s meals fairly demand it: “Pay attention!” cry the sweet n’ sour stir-fry, the home made chili and creamy sweet potato pie. No treatise can compare to the evocative gestures of a juniper limb, to the living text of mountains and rivers, or the murmuring and cooing of the canyon wind. I may wax eloquently about sensuality and bliss, but sometimes more is imparted by a single touch, a warm hug, the embrace of this cool mountain river, or a lover’s tender kiss.
“Entertainment” can distract us from the immediacy of our personal feelings, needs and dramas. On the other hand, indulging in deep conscious pleasure is a kind of entrainment that assists our reinhabitation of our sensate bodies, our communities, and the land we live in and on. Like pain, pleasure can function as a delivery system, catapulting us into the vital present moment and all it contains. Rather than isolating us, it dissolves boundaries, and heightens our sensual, visceral, emotional connection to the whole.
We have to accept that we are worthy, in a sense, in order to really give pleasure to ourselves, or to fully accept pleasure from the people and places around us. We treat other people, and the living environment so much better once we’ve done the practical magic of properly treating ourselves, or of letting others treat us really, really well! It’s far less likely someone will hurt another or wage war, overpopulate or overcompensate, become a drug addict or alcoholic, cut down the last old growth forests or neglect their spouse when they’ve learned to truly notice, tend and honor their bodily and spiritual selves. In this way, our indulging in pleasure is not only a means of feeling, but of dealing.... and healing.
Indulgence is neither tolerance, license nor excess. The word means literally to “satisfy one’s innate hungers,” and to “allow oneself to follow one’s will.” Society teaches us not to trust our feelings, and indulgence is our response: listening to our bodily desires and needs, the pleadings of intuition and instinct, and our heart’s fateful call. Indulgence is a high-dive into the intimacy of sensation, pulling the universe closer where we can touch and taste it. It is manifest in a baby’s wanting to put everything in its mouth, to taste, test and perhaps savor. It is our acting out of the will and wisdom of the ancient knowing beings within us. It’s both connection, and reward– not only eating what’s good for us, but eating meals that taste good.
There exists a potential for both enchantment and sacrament, every time we soulfully tend and nourish the sacred body. This is true whether one is talking about conscious cooking and eating or ceremonial bathing.... whether rubbing and oiling ourselves after a hard day at work, or getting together with friends to wash each other’s hair with a play of herbal shampoos. We’re transported by the diverse flavors of our just deserts, and by the purposeful bath with its trance-dance of touch.
There is perhaps no more urgent duty than the understanding and tending of our true selves and needs, so that we might best understand and tend our species and this living Earth! In the course of sating and nourishing our whole beings, we become adepts in what is the ancient art of sacred indulgence. We can evolve into alchemists of our own existence through the mindful practice of preparing our meals, rubbing our own stiff neck or drawing a luxuriant bubble bath. We literally “come into ourselves” when we satisfy our authentic creature needs, and ceremonializing every intentional act….. by taking responsibility for adding aroma and flavor, depth and meaning, beauty and magic to what is surely the meaningful ritual of our lives.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
We might envision the living planet as “Mother” Earth, but more correctly it contains a balance of both male and female principles. And it’s this dynamic mixture that fuels the rise of life itself! In this day and age when men and “male energies” are blamed for everything from sexism to war, it’s all the more important to understand and utilize the power of our true natural maleness. While we males are born with a higher capacity for aggression, this is also the power that we need to tap when it comes time to defend ourselves and our loved ones from immanent harm. Men and boys’ tendency to think more than feel can be a handicap, but our ability to think under pressure also means we should be able to accomplish amazing things in the middle of stress, confusion, flying arrows or raging storms.
For a young man, growing up can seem more difficult and challenging enough without being made to feel guilty for being born a male. In reality, the discovery and embrace of our sacred, natural maleness is essential to our magical identities, the expression of who we really are, and the gathering and growing of true power. To be responsible agents, co-creating a magical universe, we need to embody our authentic beings. This means to love, sense and utilize our physical bodies no matter what size or shape, to feel and to responsibly channel our sacred sexual energies, and to embrace not only our gentleness and sensitivity but also our inner drive and forceful wills. It’s important to remember even as adults, that we don’t need to become something other than what we really are in order to be worthy of life. We are born not “bad” but “good,” and through practice we can only get better. For the good of our growth and fulfillment, and the good of the world, we need to become more ourselves... not less.
One of the healthier archetypes of maleness is the trickster Pan, half wild goat and half thoughtful man. He represents the balance I’ve been telling you about, playful as a child and yet terrifyingly wild to those adults who feared him. He is lustful like an adult creature of the forest, but would also just as soon dance with no audience in the Spring meadow, or play his flute with the birds. Pan literally means “all,” everything! He can be found living within all things natural, expressing himself through any form, be it wind or willow, sweaty rock & roll singer or shining river rock! He’s finds himself at home in each and every lifeform, and all the various lifeforms can be found within him. Pan is most often portrayed with the torso of a man, the hoofed legs and twisty horns of a wild goat, and the capricious face of a human. Other times and places he wore elk antlers or rhino horns instead, dancing about the walls of torch-lit caverns with feather and paw, fin and claw. Pan is yet another name for omnipresent spirit, but he’s also the immortal jester, the coyote trickster of the Southwest Indian tribes, and the Norse Loki. He’s an impish instigator as well as fierce guardian of the animals and forests and all things wild. At the sound of his panpipes all of creation lifts its head, senses alerted, feeling pumped up and fully alive!
Pan is the partner, servant and playmate of the feminine in all her forms. Together they continue to assert magic and spirit in the face of soul-deadening rationality, regimentation and rules, fears and habits. To promote passion and empathy in spite of the current trend to objectify and be pacified. To inspire connectedness where separation and dogma and borders are the rule. To inspire sensuality in the restrained, and to excite those who are distracted and bored. To make the wounded among us whole.
The second mythic model for our maleness is the archetypal Green Man. Just as Pan represents our animal spirit and creatures we share this Earth with, the Green Man is the spirit of the plants we eat and the wise trees we sit beneath. He’s been honored by different peoples at different times as the Straw Man and Wicker Man, the god of food crops and the symbol of seasonal change. He’s embodied in Tolkien’s giant tree-creatures, joining in the heroic battle against the agents of death and destruction. He can be found in the sexuality of pollen clouds pollinating wildflowers as well as our corn and wheat, and in the courageous spirits of outlaw dandelion weeds, insistently poking their heads up through the cracks they’ve made in sidewalk concrete.
As with Pan, the Green Man exists within us as much as around us. We can feel it in the urge to find a home and extend our roots like stabilizing anchors or hungry mouths in the living, breathing ground. In the hidden wisdom inside us, akin to the secret knowledge of the dark and fermenting soil. And in our desire to reach up towards the light.... to blossom in beauty, to be seen, to stretch, to know and to grow. He lives not just in the garden but the conscious gardener, not just in the giant ancient redwood trees but also in those brave logging protesters who climb them to keep them from being cut down.
The power of a man, as with anyone, comes from his most authentic, unrestrained expression. We’re informed by the rustling voice of the Green Man, and inspired by the example of Pan. When I was studying with a Taos Indian elder, I learned this Tewa prayer: “Within and around the Earth, within and around the hills, within and around the mountain, your authority returns to you.” It’s the authority to be wholly ourselves, and everything we can be.
•Define for yourself the real meaning of “masculine.”
•Make a list of those traits, qualities and tendencies in you that you define as largely male (such as assertiveness, strength, will, etc.). Then under each, make room for two columns: one for the ways in which these traits are expressed that you see hurting feelings or causing harm.... another for the ways they’re expressed that contribute to our well being and spirits, as well as the well being and spirits of both the people the natural world around us.
•Speak about and write letters, songs or poems that tell the story of sacred maleness.
•Discourage the actions of males who give men a bad name, and also stand up for your gender when you hear males labeled as all being a certain negative way.
•Do your best to use every resource you have including your natural male energies, and to represent man-kind in a way that is passionate and compassionate, powerful and purposeful, artful and honorable.
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Some of each evening’s rains drift upwards with the kiss of dawn, like a waking lover’s head lifting from a pillow to meet their mate’s lips. It begins by covering the canyon with a veil of dense fog and then tightening into bands, craning skywards to slowly reveal the bright green foliage and reddish gold rocks below. Rays of sun pour unevenly through the dips and gorges of mountain-shaped clouds, drawing the eye to first one carefully spot-lit scene to the next. If there is a more spirit soothing, soul lifting vista anywhere, I have not yet drank from it with these canyon sated eyes.
The enchanting transitions of this morning will attend and sweeten all my day, enlightening and enticing. I feel soothed, as a Japanese garden or the sound of a running brook soothes, finding contentment in the arms of place the way a child finds refuge and seeks love in the encircling embrace of a parent’s hug. And at the same time, I feel an excitement to move forward, to explore, entrain, express, to create, beautify, remedy and change. I am at once awakened, energized, compelled by waves of urgency and import… and also stroked and feted, fed palpable reminders of my value, gifts and blessings, affirming my wholeness and contributing to my sense of satisfaction. As always, this is a place that both stirs and soothes, simultaneously causing us to not only gladden and heal, but also look at any unfulfilled dreams and face our suppressed fears.
It is that double-sided gift that our Retreat guests come here for, as much or more than our events, counsel and Anima teachings. And we continue to offer various forms of Wilderness Retreats here for just that reason, providing an opportunity for connecting to true self, the natural world, spirit and purpose for folks who might never come as students, seekers or questers. We welcome people to book either the Gifting or Gaia lodges, or to tent camp next to the singing Sweet Medicine River, with a hot dinner feast delivered by Loba, naturally on a sliding-scale donation basis. Counsel is offered but entirely optional, and there is no absolute requirement other than bringing open minds and sensitive, grateful hearts, coming to receive what this land of its own accord so willingly offers.
I recently shuttled a Retreat guest’s bags to her vehicle, parked a little under 2 miles from the Center. As I came abreast of her, I slowed to look in her eyes and feel who she was and what she might have received herself while here. In the brief seconds we had, I sensed that there were unanswered questions and remaining struggles and goals we might yet help with. But just as surely, I could see that a Retreat here – with her self, with her reawakening vision and realigning mission, and with this telling land – was full in and of itself. I resisted saying hardly anything, and her words to me confirmed. “I’ve gotten everything I came for,” she said as tears welled up in her eyes, “…and more.” One of the things I wanted to say but didn’t, was that it is exactly that depth of intending, noticing, feeling, embodying, caring and apparently utilizing that makes a Retreat guests time here a wonderful gift to us and this place as well.
As this woman so clearly understood, going to a wild and beautiful area on a nature “Retreat” has nothing to do with disengagement or escape, but rather is an opportunity to be restored to balance and inspired to act.
One can have a moving and healing Retreat experience other places than Anima Sanctuary or the Southwest that so many call enchanted. It may take an hour or two to get there, or it could require a day long plane ride. A car rental to explore the Olympic Peninsula with, a burro ride into the Sierras, a boat trip to a remote island, a rugged jeep ride, or a walk in that requires wading the same shallow river seven times. Inevitably it will be somewhere selected for its dramatic grip on the imagination and the senses, its powerful natural setting or longtime association with ceremony and magic. Crashing ocean waves. A secluded forest grove. The stunning view from a mountain top stupa. The embrace of a clearly magical river canyon. The cherished holy places of exotic traditions, or the colorful mesas where generation after generation of Mogollon Indians held their ceremonies and prayed. Upon arrival a gong might ring, and a set of bamboo gates swing open. Or perhaps it is only the touch of the river water on one’s bared feet, and the call of the eagle or raven that announce one has left behind the expected, the known, the busy and rote, and entered into enchanted place and time.
For thousands of years our kind has made conscious and deliberate sojourns, and for far more than rest, no matter how restful such experiences can be. The Buddhist goes on retreat to deepen his or her practice, in a special place conducive to such aims. The Franciscan Friar retreats to a wilderness abbey, to get further away from the distractions of the parish and power struggles of the church, and closer to the experience and reality of god. The shaman leaves the comforts of the village in order to contact the truths and forces that can help him in his work when he gets back. The tribal Medicine Woman, or the modern herbalist and healer, will take time out in the forest or desert where she can be herself healed, fed and affirmed… and in this way, be better able to heal and give to others. And likewise, businesswomen, community activists and urban merchants often realize that they can accomplish more of their goals in the long run, if they first take some time out of their busy schedules to give to themselves. More an more healers are defining health as wholeness and vitality, both of which are gifts we can give ourself through focused and nurturing Retreat.
Solitude is both a blessing and a challenge no matter where we experience it, and no where more than in a place of intensely realized power. It no longer surprises us to hear that most folks, even nature lovers and backpackers, have never spent more than a few waking hours by themselves, let alone far away from other people. Instructors from Outward Bound type programs tell us they are trained never to be out of shouting distance from their companions, and other people have described Vision Quest programs that involved groups sitting within sight of each other or constantly monitored by protective staff members. And yet, learning to be content in and even nurtured by solitude is a crucial part of any person’s healing and growth. It is only apart from the criticisms and pats on the back from others that we can sense who we are apart from the need to fit in or desire to please. We may claim the only reason we don’t like to be alone is that we enjoy being around people, but inevitably there is an element of not wanting to spend time with, face or have to fully learn to love and cohabit with all elements of our whole beings. It’s gift, then, is not only the added opportunities for increased focus and contemplation, the informative sights and sounds of a world without human chatter and distraction… but also the gift of finding or re-embracing our true selves, needs and callings.
A Retreat affords that gift of solitude, to the degree that we can disengage from our anxiety, attention deficit habits and constant and search for stimulation or reassurance. But it is not meant to be entirely easy, and certainly not so comforting that it insulates or pads our experience. While there may be cabins with comfortable beds and homemade feasts, those on Retreat not only deal with the relative solitude, functional primitivity, lack of phone and TV, but still have to go to the trouble of adjusting their work schedules, arranging for child care and transportation, and temporarily suspending the million and one things that they would normally be doing. Such intention, effort and follow-through makes the retreat all the more powerful, and its effects longer lasting.
Whatever the cost in getting there, or in projects delayed, we pay a much higher price when we neglect to treat, tend and recharge ourselves. Hypertension. Heart attacks. Premature aging. Disrupted sleep. Feelings of unease and dissatisfaction that lead to ambivalence or despair. It can help to take a single hour of the day, every day, and make it a set time for focused, ritual engagement, for turning off the mental loops and consciously reinhabiting our bodies, emotions, and spirit. For sensing ourselves in connection to all that is, and drawing vision and energy from the earth beneath our floors. The key is how deliberate we make that hour. How dedicated to the purpose of our personal, enlivened wholeness. And how focused on our enjoining, and hopefully bettering in some small way, the whole world that we are a part of.
Going on retreat was never meant to be a substitute for personal manifestation and action, but rather, a place and a way in which to be nurtured, instructed, energized and empowered. We still need to act on our priorities, after a retreat helps us sort out what really matters most in our lives. And it remains up to us, to utilize the energy and manifest the visions that retreats provide.
The advantage is that on a wilderness Retreat the native inspirited world offers up its insights, allowing one to tap with some inner root the accumulative planetary wisdom of 4.5 billion years of evolving consciousness and life. And it is also in retreat, that even those with the busiest minds can quiet the chatter long enough to hear their own inner pleadings and promptings, warnings and assurance, contented purring and sagely advice. We Retreat into nature not to distance ourselves from anything, so much is to edge ever closer to our own inner natures… our healing, purpose, hopes and dreams
(To register for a Healing or Student’s, Writer’s or Artist’s, Solo or Couples Retreat at the Anima Sanctuary, click on and download the Retreats Registration Form)
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
beartooth set in silver
heavy at my throat
I wander into the morning
carrying a basket of flowers
barefoot in the remnants
of a heavy dew
and I am singing an old song
the blood song
of animal and woman
into one body, one spirit
-flesh, fur and bone-
A heavy presence pads through the forest primeval, heavy like nightfall, heavy like the weighty body of the universe. We feel its approach, even as we swim the glare of the midday sun— its corporeal mass slowly moving towards us, intent on enveloping us. It is the spirit of a giant that survived the Ice Age, tearing apart the fallen trunks of ancient trees, knocking flailing salmon and furry golden marmots high into the air, continuing to stalk the darkly hidden caves of our dreams: the bear.
It comes not to silence but to awaken. To consume distraction and illusion, to put an end to the irrelevant and trivial, to draw our attention to what matters most in us and around us. To lead us to the ways and plants that can help us heal. To deliver us back to our whole, primal, magical, responsive selves. Some of us may feel the bear inside, raising up and helping us stand strong and straight, driving our hungers and feeding the growth of our insight and wisdom. Some may claim the bear totem as their own, as though the bear had claimed and inhabited them. And for all of us, it is a potential teacher that we would be unwise to ignore.
Grizzly! The sound of their name is enough to pass a charge, like electricity through our bones, enough to cast a long and deep shadow across our rapidly shrinking arrogance, illusory sense of omnipotence and fragile certainty. One glance at a grizz's unmistakable claw marks eight foot up the side of his scratching-tree and every nerve comes instantly to attention. Every sense is alerted, every light turned on at once in the mortal housing of the soul. Enlivened! Every cell open-eyed and open-mouthed, every molecule on tip-toes, straining to perceive.
Awakeness. Intensified perception. These are the first gifts of the great bear. With their slow lumbering thunder, comes the excitement and clarity of lightning bolts: sudden, penetrating, en-lightening! Truly, one perceives more in grizzly country. Sees further. Hears more acutely. Smells deeper. Notices more. Our senses honed to a fine, irreconcilable edge. Without ever actually seeing a bear, the mere thought of it is as a claw stripping the opaque film from our perceptual lens. The civilized traits of inattention and indifference are swiftly gutted like fish, and left to curl and dry on hot river rocks. Sloth joins nonchalance, pawed into a carrion pile beneath a layer of sticks and dirt.
More people are hurt in California shower stalls each year than are hurt by wild animals in the entire country. The fact is that there's a greater probability of being hit by lightning than attacked by a bear. Our heightened awareness in grizzly country results from the possibility of a bear attack, not by its likelihood. Systematic and almost complete removal of this wilderness potential allows for us to sleep-walk through most wilderness experiences on "automatic pilot," the way we may be used to functioning in the "work-a-day" world. Reduction in any wilderness potential reduces our own ability to experience.
Since our Paleolithic ancestors first contested proprietorship of a cave, the great bear has been a reminder that humans are not at the top of the "food chain." Ask any grizzly you meet. Or, if you're below a certain size, ask a starving mountain lion. If anything, soil is at the top, since it gets to eat everybody . Civilized cultures fear dirt for this very reason, fighting back with soaps, detergents, and above-ground mausoleums. But they fear the bear most of all.
At its worst, civilized human existence can be unnatural, reduced, confined, insulated like a padded cell, buffered from danger and thus from adventure, heightened sensation, spontaneity and awe. A great effort is made to ensure the urban environment is the opposite of grizzly country: constrained, predictable, metered, pacified, and inflexibly scheduled. There's a singular lucidity to grizzly country, a brilliance and clarity like sunlight dancing on a curved tooth. Time spent in grizzly country is infinitely and necessarily flexible. Spontaneity and attentiveness are traits that contribute to both our capacity to survive and to enjoy.
But the grizzly, and in fact all species of bear, have more to teach us than merely being alert. They are intuitives, seers, shamans, travelers of the soul and instinctual healers that have influenced our development and psychology for ages. Our species evolved in close relationship with Ursus, serving alternately as the bears' food and prey, as their destroyers, their fawning bards... and their rapt students.
The earliest physical evidence of human reverence for animal spirits was discovered in various grottoes high in the mountains of Franconia, Switzerland and Germany. Along with numerous tools and fauna remains, they discovered purposeful collections of cave bear skulls stacked neatly on shelves, or protected inside stone cabinets protected by slab "doors." Some were encircled by a formation of small rocks, while another held a leg bone in its mouth. Here were not only the tools for killing and fleshing these powerful animals, but proof of their veneration by what must have been a bear cult. It seems that from earliest times the bear was seen as the "Animal Master," the strongest of all. Right relationship with the bear, however each tribe defined that, would determine what other animals made themselves available.
I once came upon some Pueblo Indian friends of mine way back on a dirt road, north of Taos. Hung upside down next to them was a young black bear carcass. I'd read how human they look with their baggy hide removed, but nothing prepared me for what looked like a skinned man with his chest opened, the pink muscles layered like a teen wrestler with a size #18 neck. They salted and rolled up the skin, fur side in, while I watched the flies probe the exposed body. The hide would be carefully tanned, and the meat left for the coyotes. For them, eating a bear would be like cannibalism. For they are the creatures most like us.
The bear's fierce maternal devotion helps explain her role as the Mother of All Animals. In her book Gods and Goddesses Marija Gimbutas contemplates the hundreds of ancient terracotta "bear nurses" that have been excavated from various Euro-neolithic sites. Many are enthroned female bears, or women with bear masks on, and most are nursing a cub. She sees these as the primordial animal goddess, the Great Mother, nurturing the new gods and goddesses of vegetation and agriculture. The cub, then, becomes Zeus on the bear's nipple, Zalmoxis and Dionysus, Artemis and Diana.
Our ancestors in both the "Old" and "New World" watched the bear go into its den every winter and emerge every Spring— an obvious herald of rebirth, the return of life to a hungry land and hungry people. The people of civilizing Europe harnessed the bear, and the bear's mythology, to the purposes of the field and plow. In England they had the "strawbear," while in Germany he was called the Fastnachtshar: a man dressed up in a straw bear costume who would be led in early Spring to each house of the village. There the man-bear would dance with all the women. The more enthusiastically they danced, the richer the coming crop would be. Pieces of the straw costume would be snatched by the young girls, and placed beneath their pillows to insure fertility, or placed in the nests of their chickens to encourage the laying of eggs. The bear has forever represented as going into the self, into the Earth in order to be refreshed, revitalized and reborn again. Those who would be students of the bear travel the discomforting trail into their inner self, only later returning to the busy surface with the strength and secrets found within. They know that out of the icy sleep of winter comes the regeneration of life.
Entering into an initiation rite is often like going into hibernation. The initiate is likely placed in the dark and isolation of a secluded hut, pit or cave. They may be further wrapped up, blindfolded, or otherwise have their senses and mobility limited as it would be in the womb. As with hibernation, the initiate would seem to die inside, giving up one persona and climbing out in a new, empowered form. For this reason, the Dakota refer to a boy's rite of passage as "to make a bear." The coastal Pomo included both boys and girls in an initiation where the children are symbolically "killed" by the kuksu spirit, with the help of a costumed grizzly bear. They were then removed to the forest for four days and nights. When they were "reborn" into the tribe, they brought with them the secret medicine songs and plant knowledge learned in their travels to the middle world.
For the Ainu of northernmost Japan, the bear was "The Divine One Who Rules the Mountains." To the Cree they are the "Angry One" and "Chief's Son." The Sami translation is roughly "Old Man With Fur Clothes," while the nearby Finns say "Old Lightfoot" or "Pride of the Woods." Most often, wherever they are found they're called "Grandmother" and "Grandfather" out of respect. Long after the adoption of firearms in both Europe and America the indigenous people continued to hunt bears with their most primitive weapons, insisting on honoring their quarry with the personal engagement and inherent fairness of hand to hand combat.
The totemic energy of the bear was invoked by both men and women of one of the select warrior classes of "barbaric" Europe. They got their name "Berserkers" from the bear ("ber") skins ("serks") they wore instead of the uniforms and armor of their more civilized antagonists. Men and women are said to have fought together, biting at their shields, and raising such a tumultuous animal roar that the earliest Roman invaders fled in a total panic. They were famous for their ability to ignore pain, facing unfair odds with uncompromised ferocity. Their characteristic ability to continue fighting in spite of numerous wounds may have been assisted by the consumption of certain psychoactive mushrooms, no doubt showed to them by their rambling bear guides. Among the Great Plains tribes of America they were called "Bear Dreamers" and "Bear Warriors." Known for running head long at their foes, at times with no more than a bear-jaw knife. They believed the bear spirit would protect them, inspiring incredible feats of courage.
The Pueblo name for bear is often the same as for doctor. The bear not only ushers in the spring vegetation, but then shows those who watch close enough which plants and roots to eat, and which herbal medicines to gather for their people. In this country the bear showed the people where to find the kinnickinnick (also called Uva Ursi, or "bearberry"), the yarrow and osha root. The Lakota emergence myth describes the people being tricked into leaving the middle earth by the Trickster Iktomi. For leaving the embrace of the Earth Mother the people were subjected to disease, cold and hunger for the first time— possibly an allegory for humanity's progressive disenfranchisement from the rest of the living planet. It was the bear, the doctor, that felt sorry for the wayward humans and showed them the plant remedies they would need to ease their self-inflicted suffering.
In both America and Europe the bear spirit was considered to be the ally of the shaman. Like the medicine man, the bear could both heal you and kill you. Both are solitary travelers, garnering their power from the lessons of Nature and the experience of solitude. Both are feared at the same time they are revered. Like bears, those with bears for guiding totems, typically make people uncomfortable.
And to be fair, bears can be hard to live with! People with bear energies or traits are not just strong willed but stubborn, sometimes to their own detriment. Uncooperative, unless something happens to please them. Able to withdraw into themselves, to the exclusion of others. Distant and inaccessible, when they’re feeling either melancholy or bored. Impatient about anything that matters. Dangerous when they are crossed. They are hardest on themselves when they lack a purpose, and hardest on others when they are judged and misunderstood.
Unless and until they develop self discipline, such people may gravitate to extremes of mood and behavior, giddy and playful one moment and perturbed the next. They may find themselves eating more sweets than are healthy, and sleeping more than they need. They are not lazy people, only extremely particular about what they commit their interest and energies to.
On the other hand, these bear-folk have the ability to search the inner labyrinths of their creature beings and wild souls, resulting in a deep understanding of self that they can make use of if and when they decide to come back out. They have the inherent strength and determination to accomplish great things, moving aside immense boulders in order to get to a self-assigned goal. They are self motivated and function well at solitary work of any kind. At the same time, they can make incredible mates, so long as they live with someone who not only truly knows and understands them, but who also shares their preferences, desires, intentions, missions, destinations and designs. They are capable of being some of the very best teachers, authors and parents... and the most dependable guardians of integrity and truth, spirit and magic, land and home. They make the most powerful healers, whenever they have first done the work of healing themselves. Those who marry the bear, never want to go back.
It’s not a matter of physical size or shape. Being bear is in the way one walks flat-footed, and swings their head from side to side. In the deliberateness of motion, and the absence of frivolity. In great persistence and high intelligence. In playfulness that is as intense and focused as hunting or sex. In the father’s force of purpose, and the mother’s protectiveness. In the earth-warrior’s devotion, and the inimitable bear-hug. In the Medicine Woman’s affinity with plants and intuitive relationship to medicinal herbs. In their huge hearts and berry-chomping smiles. It’s in the way that they dream of the bear... and the way that bear, in turn, dreamed them into being.
what is sacred, and
who walks with naked foot.
the earth below and the mind's echo in
the long night, the body turns
on poles of cold wind and fire.
what the dream can touch
and the heart hear
(the cracking of gray ice
like a mirror in her eyes)
give yourself to the star, give
yourself to the last bear
Acceptance of the wild bear is tantamount to acceptance of the untamed wilderness, of the untamed energies of womanhood, of an untamed life. It means acceptance of the dualities of nature, of all sides of the Earth Mother.
I am reminded of Artemis, Greek daughter of the original Animal Mother, grown into the Lady of The Beasts, the Lady of Wild Nature, priestess of the moon. She was Diana the huntress, but also served as the defender of wildlife. Her companion was a bear, and together they ruled the plant kingdom and thus determined feast or fast. She served as protectress of thieves, slaves and outlaws. She was at once the destructive, all consuming "terrible mother" and the defender of the children, guardian spirit of all pregnant women and "Opener of the Womb." Artemis helps us understand how our difficult embrace of the bear is actually an acceptance of the death that must precede any planetary rebirth.
For many thousands of years humankind has looked to the bear as both reality and symbol, seeing many different things in both. A few land-based tribes in Siberia and North America continue to actively revere the mighty grizzly as a worthy rival and invaluable guide. Conservationists and nature lovers may continue to see them as important aspects of a healthy ecosystem, and some in the Pagan and New Spirituality communities still draw on them for inspiration, example and power. But for most people, the relationship has progressed to one of estrangement, with all wildlife becoming distant curiosities or televised entertainment. They are no longer even trophies to "bag," let alone threats to avoid at all cost. To them, the bears are veritable historical artifacts, barely breathing throwbacks to a wilder and more intensely realized time. They're magic, and they are indeed disappearing. But they're also as real as we are. And in another way, they're always here.
Primal humans found something distinctly familiar in the great bear. In the way the mother gently plays with her cubs, and stiffly defends them against all comers. The way she gently sniffs the beckoning blossoms, or stretches in the sun. The bear appeals to that part of the human psyche still pondering its own untamed nature— with perked ears and raised hackles! It strokes the Paleolithic sensibility that even now revolts against enforced civility.
There is something like destiny, like karma, climbing inexorably over the nearby ridge, heading unhurriedly but deliberately our way. It is a playful dream, a sensual overture, a fur-covered agent of the wild. It is awakeness, and it is healing. It promises, in silence, to take us into itself... into its very center!
It is the great bear.
And it is us.
see the shape
of your footprints
in the sand
-Leslie Marmon Silko
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
“Culture comes up out of the earth, vibrating through the body, as each individual affirms life and expresses her or his unique creativity. It is kept alive by consciously honoring the sacredness of the four Great Mysteries: food, sex, birth, and death. The ceremonial arts are channels for people to express their relationship with these primal mysteries.”
Art and love are surely among humanity’s most redeeming graces. And the most meaningful of that art reflects, exalts, and is informed by inspirited nature. It’s an acknowledging and glorifying of the inner essence of relationship and form, of that numinous essence that our creations can at best only allude to. It is the marriage of symbol and context, Earth and Spirit, fostered by our own loving hands– a palette of mountain clay and earthen pigment.... of pain and joy, struggle and hope.
There’s an intentionality and honesty to real art that makes it more than decoration, raising it to the level of ritual. The artist celebrates not only the lines and color of a particular landscape, but the character that breeds and defines its landed features, the spirits of place honored in deft strokes by one who loves the land in the hush of compost and gray of winter as much as the brilliant warmth of Spring greens. And it is just as true for our poetry, correspondence and diary entries, for craft and song and dance dedicated to the illumination of the lasting inner power, the energetic fibers that connect us to the whole. Dances to the hunted animals, chants to the rain gods, magical paintings on mats of bark and myths told and retold over the proverbial tribal fire– all are stories, and it is story that binds us to our beliefs, to the past and the future, and to the experience of place. They are the threads that weave us back into our contact with the land that defines and sustains us, crucial lessons handed down through the inheritance of crafts rather than the sequencing of genes. Since the very beginnings of what it means to be “human” we have venerated and exalted the gods, the land, and our true loves-- and it is in this place of art and ritual where we know these things and ourselves as one.
What is often missing in our unlanded culture is not only artistic form in life, but the art of life: the art of conscious, responsive, celebratory relationship. The assignment is not only to make the relationship work, but to make it beautiful as well. Not only meeting the needs of the other, but delighting them with our means for doing so. In our relationship to the land, the care we gift it includes our attentiveness, love, protection, and artful celebration of shared being. In our ecstatic coming together there is the opportunity for a further dissolving of boundaries. Boundaries between us and the land. Between the creator and the created, the artist and the art.
It’s far too easy to relegate art to those visible forms seeming to exist beyond ourselves, to finished and salable products rather than recognizing it as an ongoing process in which we play an essential role. Say the word “art” and many will conjure images of mummified paintings hung in sterile museums, the tastier graphics adorning the expressway billboards or the better of the year’s dramatic films. For some art is whatever catches and pleases the eye so long as it was informed by the human hand, while for others it can only be found in the few of those creations that manage to stand out from the rest, enlisting, stirring and releasing our reservoirs of pent-up emotion. Others find in the creations of Nature or God, in the luster of the sunset and the grace of beating wings an artistic perfection one can barely approximate on paper or in clay. An in the end all our art, as all people and all life forms— is of the Earth. Grounded in a wild and creative Nature, empowered by Spirit.
What we nearly all forget is the degree to which we can and should be participants in the artistry we’re immersed in. While we may consider ourselves “spectators” we inevitably contribute awareness, experience and emotion to what is principally an exchange. Exchanges with someone’s painting, with the architecture that surrounds us or the heavy-breathing clouds above our heads. We are said to be the only species capable of creating art, and yet we may also be the only lifeform ever to exist outside the state-of-art.
But it was not always so. Not for the pale villagers of ancient Europe who left us the sculpted body of the archetypal Earth Mother, the bearer of all of life. And not for the first hominid inhabitants of this state called New Mexico either. The ancient pueblo people left behind shards of painted pottery that continue to evoke the Great Mystery, fired clay fragments of a life of honoring, picture-puzzle pieces still vibrating with the energy of years of reverent touch. They spoke their fealty for the land in rock art carved out of their collective and individual souls, lightning bolts and the seed-carrier Kokopelli painted on the sides of the caves. Here too are the forms of the artists’ fingers and palms: their signatures, the marks of their selves, in graphic hands reaching out to their descendants across the chasm of time. They left enduring images of their priorities and loves, deities and dreams. They left their holiest expressions of wonder and communion, the evidence of a marriage with place consecrated in timeless art.
The lover in us is a child that likes to draw, handle a sharp pencil, splash water colors or inhale the aroma of the turpentine and linseed oil that thins and binds the pigments to canvas. Vision can be as immediate as touch, direct and with no need of explanation. Like altar boys we ready the vacant sheets of tree-flesh, release our lifeforce in a fountain of red paints, freed of all preconceptions about design as meaning proceeds to take over. One never really manufactures either adventure or art. We are confronted by it, consumed by it... and remade within it. It always has a purpose, one beyond the range of the artist’s intentions, and it is willingly given away. Here today and gone tomorrow, like those golden cottonwood leaves. Like those Tibetan sand paintings intricately crafted in this ever-shifting medium, definitive colors sure to blow across one another, mixing and blending until fully melded into, fully indifferentiable from the landscape from which they came. But then it’s not in the completion of some project that we become fulfilled. Rather, it is in the making of our art, in the living of our lives that we’re made whole.
“The purpose of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance,” Aristotle proclaimed. This is true for those aesthetic forms evolved independent of human influence as much as for our “own” creations, for rivers and twisted cedar limbs as well as the sculpture forming beneath the attentive motion of our tools. Each glinting rock, each flex of river muscle an inspiration to the heart, and food for soul. Art was, is, what comes of the relationship between self and other, when allowed to express itself. It is a complex and evolving structure for relating that we exist and act within. With or without the artist’s brush we reach out to make our mark, from the center of our experience of art, of life, of our mated land.
In the artist’s vernacular our attention to form is called “style.” Once we’ve made art into a way of being, an activity, a verb, we see the ways in which it corresponds to the word “grace”-- which can mean a “seemingly effortless beauty or charm of movement,” “an excellence bestowed by God” and “a prayer of thanksgiving.” It is in this sense of motive beauty, beneficence and gratitude that we impart grace to our acts, and are in turn graced by the inspirited world we act upon and within.
Repetitive chores turn into art whenever they’re executed with style, then become ritual concurrent with our conscious acknowledgment of their meaning and importance. The same acts completed without our mindful attention and conscious intent are simply habits. We don’t need to take time away from living to engage in ritual, so much as we need to ritualize our daily existence. Sitting up in bed each morning to face the first sun becomes a ritual, as soon as we’re conscious of it as an act of interpenetration and show of gratitude. The sharing of food moves from a quick refueling to a slow and artful unfolding, and then into ritual as each serving is consecrated, every bite undertaken as communion. Communion with the lifeforms that feed us, with the sun and rain and soil that made the salad possible, with the spiritual/evolutionary power moving through both consumer and consumed.
The result is reconnection, as our art and practice weaves us back into the material of our experience. Together with the ritual efforts of others, we co-create the living fabric of culture, jointly paint on that fabric the story of our struggles, our miracles... our beautiful, beautiful hope.