In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”
When David and I visit our Ojibwe cousins on the reservation in northern Wisconsin, we watch them introduce themselves to plants as a sign of respect and ask them for permission to harvest. We witness our relatives giving thanks by “putting down tobacco” as a prayer of gratitude for every piece of medicine they pick. They practice the reciprocity of giving a gift in return for the medicine the plants have given. When we are with our relatives we, too, offer tobacco.
Back at home, tobacco does not feel like my medium of gratitude. I might choose to give water or ashes or dried apple slices for bounty received. Any of the ways that my indigenous Northern European ancestors made offerings are lost in time, as they are for so many broken cultures. We try to remember — maybe honey, mugwort, mead? If we do not live within an Earth-honoring community that has taught us traditional sacred ways to give thanks to Earth and Spirit, we each have to find our own ways to give reverence. The more authentically we give thanks from the heart, the more genuinely relational it is. Poets might write words of gratitude or blessings on small pieces of paper and bury them at the base of trees. Singers might offer a song accompanied by the rhythmic percussion of a pair of picked-up sticks.
A kinesthetically oriented person might be moved to create something visually pleasing as an offering. This is the way that most resonates with me. But this practice did not come naturally. It’s one I learned from a dear friend, Barbara. She showed me how to make prayers when out on a walk by using the natural elements that each special place offered to us. I watched as, in countless different ways, she offered beauty back to beauty given. Wherever we went she led us on little mindfulness walks to gather natural objects that made themselves attractive to us. In whatever place we found ourselves she made a simple ritual to locate and mark a symbolic center. There she created small, spontaneous rituals to turn our inner experiences of gratitude into outer forms of expression.
One time Barbara and I met for a walk through the native plants section of Duke Gardens. Arriving at a pond she asked that we spend some time in silence. After many minutes of quiet, suddenly green frogs, bull frogs and grey tree frogs all started croaking. When it began raining softly we took shelter in a small outdoor pavilion overlooking the pond. Not speaking, just watching the rain make lazy overlapping concentric circles on the dark water.
After a while she suggested we express appreciation by naming the various pond creatures before us. We took turns giving thanks . . . for three tiny baby turtles lined up on a little log . . . for a big mama turtle resting over there on the muddy bank . . . for the various frogs with elevated eyes floating towards us . . . for the plentiful neon-colored dragonflies flitting about . . . for red cardinals, a gray catbird, a bluebird . . . and for whatever was making the continuously rising bubbles that looked like rain coming up from below to meet the rain coming down from above.
After this ritual acknowledgement, she suggested we make an altar. Following her lead, I helped gather pieces of twigs, leaves, petals, and bits of moss that had blown into the pavilion. With these she made a pleasing design in the round stone bowl of a broken water fountain in the center. Then she began a slow, meditative chi kung. I mirrored her movements, feeling like we were temple-dancers, swaying gracefully around an altar in the shrine of Earth Mother. We danced, singing For the Beauty of the Earth . . . To the Universe we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise. What if the whole Cosmos is powered by the rhythm of love-energies dancing? Shortly after we stopped singing and were sitting quietly on the stone benches, a family came by. The father looked at the water fountain and said to his young ones, “I see some kids have been playing here!”
My friend didn’t show up for our walks empty-handed. At most, I would remember to grab a small bag of birdseed to scatter to any birds-of-place we might meet. She showed up for each walk having carefully prepared, as for a pilgrimage. Once, when I had an especially oppressive social problem, I told her I felt very alone in it. She proposed that we meet in the forest to consult a particularly wise stand of beech trees. As an offering she brought chunks of green-skinned pears, red apple wedges, and orange segments. We threaded the colorful fruits on strings and hung them from branches, looking like stained glass prisms in the diffused forest sunlight. I had a feeling that this much beauty would surely attract a lot of help! And, with this heart-opening call, she surely primed me to receive it.
As we wandered slowly among those big blue-trunked beech trees in silence, I observed a number of beings and things that gave me helpful symbolic messages, like the pileated woodpecker only a few feet away at eye level, facing me in full view, pecking diligently for insects at a small low branch, who was not disturbed by my presence, as if he didn’t feel threatened by my un-humanly slow movements, which told me to trust myself, that I am trustable, even in all my messy needs and feelings; and the enormous beech tree with a long barbed-wire scar across its base, which encouraged me that one can rise free from oppression.
Near the end of the trail I came to an uncanny sign that read: “This natural area is not just here by itself, it’s part of a much larger ecosystem. Meeting of the Waters Creek flows into Morgan Creek which flows through Mason Farm to Jordan Lake, and these are all one vast landscape.” I no longer felt alone with my problem, and some ideas for taking action arose. The message was to trust the spirit-filled natural world, that nature is trustable to help when we ask. Trust in the goodness within plus trust in the goodness of Spirit all around is a powerful formula for revelation. We spread on a log some nuts she had brought, in gratitude to the compassionate beings of the beech forest. This might be called eco-therapy, but I’d call it love.
Barbara and I have walked together at several outdoor labyrinths, seeking them out because labyrinths welcome and accept all feelings, and are inexplicable repositories of compassion. Once she and I met beside a church at a small crooked labyrinth, its path meandering under huge willow oak trees, to walk with her great grief and pain for the natural world devastated by a giant oil spill. I told her my pain was so enormous I had dissociated and numbed it. She suggested we put it in the center of the labyrinth, approach it slowly, be with it as long as needed, then return and share. Step by step I was able to approach the pain, opening to it in increments. When she got to the center with its white quartz boulder as altar she reverently placed on it six tiny willow oak acorn caps, then balled up a pile of the long oak catkins and placed it on an outcrop in the rock. Moved by her silent expression of solidarity, giving the most human thing she could give, a creative offering of beauty, I added small arching twigs to encircle it, to make it a sanctuary, a temenos, and a small “tree” with a catkin “nest” as a prayer of protection for the birds.
Even a tiny pilgrimage to and from the center of a labyrinth can have some of the main ritual ingredients of pilgrimage: instinct and image, experiencing and expressing. Walking our pain, our bodies experienced their instinctive response to loss, their instinctive yearning to make connection with the hurt birds, their instinctive desire to honor them and pray for their protection. At the center, the goal of pilgrimage, we made a symbolic image on the altar to voice our silent prayers, to express in beauty our cry for healing, joining love-image to love-instinct. This little pilgrimage to the center of our souls to face our pain, to dwell with and express our grief, transformed it into a soothing balm. We were joined, it seemed, by the spirits of compassion at the center of the transformational mystery of the labyrinth.
Barbara is my teacher. I sense nature’s holiness, but I’m often mute and helpless to make a response in the moment to the sacredness I’m experiencing. She makes spontaneous gestures to express gratitude and appreciation which, while seeming so small and simple, are momentous in the world of soul, which we share with nature. She silently demonstrates how to turn our human instinct to experience deep relationship with nature, to honor and give thanks for this connection—with touch of plants, trees, soil—into images, sculptural altars, mandalas, and heartfelt, kinesthetic offerings of love.
When we get together for a walk I tend to just show up to, well, walk. For her every walk is a potential pilgrimage. She has done the all-important stage of pilgrimage: preparation. Barbara has prepared by contemplating the issue, the occasion, or the need and how we might approach it ritually. She shows up with an intention, having thought about what she knows is going on in our lives or in the world. She comes not only with offerings, but also with a tentative idea for a ritual, while the actual ritual arises spontaneously from her connection with nature in the moment. She has intuited what to offer to the nature spirits to call to them and invite their presence. The altar is always made spontaneously from whatever form and materials the natural setting presents. Thus, to make it we are drawn into a state of attention, a felt-awareness with all our senses of what is present around us, of the aesthetic or symbolic qualities of the material evidence of the spiritual presence of nature. I try hard to learn this relational mode of reverencing that comes to her so naturally. What I provide is a very willing partner with whom to share her devotions.
One spring when I showed up at Meeting of the Waters Creek, Barbara arrived with a plan that we check in, then explore ways to support each other, her in her need to grieve what is happening in the world and me in my need to discern a creative way forward in offering an upcoming ceremony for our community. We sat on the bank and watched what we realized were the shed flowers of beech trees, looking like a festive flotilla of sailboats, the stem of each cluster of flowers jauntily arching up behind it like the plume of a personal watercraft. On a smooth stretch of water they floated fast and straight as if on a mission, then kept getting turned around in the riffles like children’s boats at a carnival water ride. Breaking free, they each scooted with a little bounce over the tiny rock dam, then drifted lazily in the deeper pool with the small fish, relaxed, at least until another fast stretch propelled them on to the next phase of their mission. Well, there was a lot of meaning to unpack here as we shared what we learned from the beech flowers about how to be in our emotional processes and how to approach our work in the world.
Feeling complete, I sat watching the fish, long-nosed dace and a blue-head chub or two, and the patterns of sun playing on the water while she wandered off, found a cup, and brought back some forest items that she suggested we let float down the creek with our prayers of gratitude. After this ritual a pine cone and a couple of small branches were left. She said the pine cone looked good on the mound of sand right where it was. We added petals and the remaining small branches to make a sculpture and smoothed off our footprints.
These little pilgrimages with Barbara are not always solemn and serious. One winter with our husbands we made our traditional long-weekend New Year’s trip, this time to Emerald Isle on the coast of North Carolina. On New Year’s Day we drove to Beaufort and took the small ferry over to Carrot Island, timed with low tide, and walked through the marshes and over the mud flats to see the wild horses of Bird Shoals. Later, as we sat waiting for the return ferry, we had an almost mythic experience, so typical of my friend. She had found an old basketball on the beach and, not wanting to leave this piece of trash, she schlepped it back with her and sat it down while we waited for the boat to come. The basketball started to roll down the sand bank a time or two, but we retrieved it and placed it solidly, we thought, on the sand. While we watched a red-throated loon out in the channel taking a bath, repeatedly rising up to full height, wide wings splashing vigorously, the basketball left its perch. We hesitated a bit too long to wade out after it, and it bobbed away to the left, out toward Beaufort Inlet. We watched it pass sailboats and get avoided by motor boats.
But then it caught a current and changed direction, veered right, and began floating towards Beaufort. We watched through our binoculars as it went past docked yachts, kayakers, and jet skiers. Nothing ran into it, and nobody seemed to notice it as it passed right by them. Meanwhile we kept up an ongoing commentary, as if watching the progress of some racing cross-country skier. We kept shouting encouragement. Come on, you can make it, just a little farther. Oh, don’t stop. Aw, it’s gonna go under the dock. Oh no, look it came around. Oh, it’s in that dock. Wait for us! Oh geez, it just stopped there. Dang, it will probably go under that dock, too. Hold on, we’re coming.
We kept expecting it to get pushed by the waves under one dock or another or lodged between one boat or another, but instead it kept drifting right towards the ferry dock. It entered the ferry dock just as the captain left to come pick us up. (He did notice it.) We hoped it would wait for us to get there, but assumed it would keep going and we’d miss it. On our way back we saw that it had come to a stop right where the boat would come in and we could pick it up. Look, it’s waiting for us! When we arrived back, Barbara’s husband Jerry got out and scooped it up. The mood was joyous, as if we were celebrating the return of a dear profligate friend. There was an almost religious feeling, like we had just witnessed The Miracle of the Basketball, like this would be forever honored as Basketball Day and a shrine would be built to visit the relic. By then we couldn’t just deflate it and put it in a trashcan. So, not knowing what else to do with the ball, we brought it back in the car with us.
Barbara and Jerry were leaving the next day, so I called over to see if they wanted to get together before they left. Barbara said yes, she’d like to do a little ceremony honoring our time together. In the morning we met with the basketball and the wooden staff with four feathers tied with fishing line that she’d found lying in the sand the day we went to Cape Lookout. We walked over to the vacant dunes beyond the motel. On the way she picked up some feathers, driftwood, and shells, and we, following her lead, picked up shells and other potentially symbolic detritus.
She made a spiral on a smooth, sloping spot in the sand surrounded by sea oats and asked us one by one to place our objects in a turn of the spiral and give thanks for what we’d experienced on this trip. I was already into it. The men were skeptical, but dutifully obeyed each round, and were genuinely participatory when they spoke their honorings. After several rounds, I decorated the spiral with waves drawn in the sand and gave thanks for Barbara, for how she helps us become conscious and grateful like this. The ceremony was a perfect way to end our time together on a heartfelt note. Then we placed the basketball and the feathered staff in a protected hollow in the dunes and gave thanks for all the spirited people who make such ceremonial prayer items and for the reminder that objects can have soul and behave in surprisingly soulful, animated ways, at least when we give energy to them, and when they do, we honor them. We took our leave, with warm and happy hugs for yet another wonderful New Years adventure together.
Perhaps I have learned from my friend. On a crispy blue fall day, David and I hiked up a rocky trail to a hilltop populated with huge, rounded, Buddha-like blue boulders that had recently been conserved. Wanting to praise this spirit-personified place, I suggested we choose a singular flat rock, like an altar-in-waiting, on which to make an expression of gratitude. It was already artistically decorated by nature with moss and lichens. We added some large sprouting acorns from the chestnut oaks, red and tan leaves of maple, small twigs, and stones to make a simple collage, a practical offering of reverence to the surrounding beauty. Neither art nor ceremony, this was more akin to playful prayer or prayerful play. What appeals to us, what delights our souls, will surely get the attention of the loving spirits as well.