A valentine poem for you, for the earth. Perhaps especially for those who are in solitude this Valentine’s Day. Jai Maa ❤
Here the earth curves in welcome
meeting my back with the sure comfort
of a wizened love.
I lean into the embrace,
inclined to believe
this is meant to be.
I rest against stones in their fullness, round
rising from the ground
warmth penetrating my cold, jagged edges
as I sink into the flow
that caressed their shape
Here so held solitude
My awareness slides
into the ever flowing river
surely as the salmon
in rushing depths.
This as simple and precious as breath
Here a truth:
You are not loved.
You are love.
You are not on this earth.
You are of this earth.
You can not be separate from who you are
and even the strongest of forms
will change with the flow of time.
Whenever I am be-ing outdoors, awe and gratitude often strike me to the core, like a ray of sun suddenly slicing through the dense canopy and illuminating the forest floor in a shocking glow.
I realized a couple of weeks ago that on many of my recent outings, I had been much more focused on getting somewhere or on the physical activity of hiking, my body wanting to move while it could and my mind wanting a distraction from itself. I hadn’t been sinking into the still receptiveness of winter.
Well, cue a flare-up of body pain and an injury. Unable to exert myself I was forced to slow down, to be still and pay closer attention, to notice what was going on in my body and in the world around me. To be present with the pain* and my reaction to it, to notice where grief was rising, bubbles from the cracks at the bottom of an emotional sea.
It was then that the light of awe and gratitude that had recently been only like the first light of sunrise, rose high. The cracks broke open and a great flood washed over me.
Driving south along 101, the Washington coast rising and falling in great curves that seemed to match the sound of the waves breaking upon her shore, I made a sudden left turn onto a dirt road with a sign that read “Big Cedar.” I had driven past this sign near Kalaloch many times on my way to other places, promising myself I would make a more leisurely trip and stop at this and all of the other heritage trees.
Just a few steps from the rough parking area ,this giant tree looms colossal. It is said the tree is over 1000 years old; part of it has fallen and there is only one living branch, and it is breathtaking. Standing in the presence of this ancient being I felt time spin and grow very still, each breath seeming to be an eternity. I found myself circumambulating this kin’s** great trunk like a temple. Stooping beneath a huge root that was well over human height and must have grown out of a great nurse log, I felt like I was entering the most sacred of places. Walking around the tree, seeing where new life was growing from the decay, I acutely felt the cycle of life and death and the gifts that the forest holds. Tears wet my cheeks at I slowly stepped forward to touch the exposed roots and the soft, decaying bark. I spoke a prayer of gratitude, and a promise to work to protect the tree’s kin so that they too would have the chance to live full lives of grace.
Following several days of winter rain (finally), the weather cleared and the steely dome of the sky lifted into a high blue cathedral ceiling. Still feeling sore, I decided pain be damned and went to Rialto Beach, on Quileute tribal land, now the Olympic National Park.
It was impossibly beautiful. The horizon was completely clear so I watched the bright orb of the sun as the horizon rotated away, dipping the sun into the ocean to turn the water into surreal shades of orange and red and pink and purple.
Then just after sunset, as I’m watching the colors shift in the fading light, overcome by the beauty, an eagle flies by. And then another. And then a raven circles me. And then another raven. And then an eagle circles me. And then two more eagles fly by and land in the tree above me. One after another after another in wave after wave of awe, me turning in circles with my face lifted skyward: bird, pink sky, sunset, purple ocean, bird. Feeling the incredible throng of life.
Before I knew it I was sobbing. Like tears pouring down my face grateful the ocean covered the sound and all the people had already moved on sobbing. I stood there and just wept for a while, the waves of awe and gratitude crashing against waves of pain and grief in a beautiful spray of tears.
Yes, I was sobbing for my own pain and loss, which we all have. But I was also crying in gratitude, crying for the sheer impossibility that I, or any of us, could be here to witness such beauty, and how fleeting it is. Crying for the loss that the earth has experienced, me listening to her cries, even as she hears mine. I felt awe at the continued celebration of the cycle of life and death, against all odds. And I felt a fierce protectiveness for what, who, I love.
I went home as the gloaming deepened. Later that night I went out to walk my dog, and was surprised to see to see something I had not seen here yet: the sky was perfectly clear, the moon was old, and the stars were flickering brightly.
I live close enough to town that there is enough light pollution to obscure the full majesty of the starry sky. So, I hopped back in the car and drove to Rialto again. As I drove one, two shooting stars crossed my sight, seeming to call me forward. I stopped where the Quillayute river pours into the sea, the electric lights blocked by mountains, and again turned my face skyward.
Its a good thing I was leaning against the car.
Above me stretched a tapestry of light against the darkness and the Milky Way in near-full glory, the river mirroring the flowing. Another shooting star with a tail that trailed across half my field of vision flashed brightly; I felt as if I could reach out and grab the star like a firefly in a jar.
And there I was, one being held by the cosmos, the earth supporting my feet, the stars as gateways to the unknowable. Time again began to spiral, the flickering stars seemed to giggle and sing as the river hummed softly and the waves added their crescendos. What greater miracle than this?
Nature can break us open in the most beautiful of ways, reminding us of our own wildness, of the connection we have with the world and with other beings. This connection remains whether we acknowledge it or not, and demands our attention and reciprocation.
*Pain and disability sucks, make no mistake about that. But for me, I have to see it as a gateway. Not to make the pain go away, but to understand myself as a person with pain and how fleeting life is, and to empathize with the pain of the world.
**I strive to remove inappropriate pronouns from my vocabulary, and to always address a being with the pronoun they use, human or non-human. I do not feel comfortable referring to the earth and the many beings that exist here as “it”. Kin is one alternative that I use, as it is non-appropriative, gender neutral, and reflects the relationship we have with other beings. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks more about this, and has inspired me to continue to reflect on language.
It’s true that the dark days can make us appreciate the bright ones more. When the clouds clear and the sun makes a sudden, stunning appearance painting the sky in an impossible play of colors, the gratitude I feel is overwhelmingly blissful.
Gratitude changes everything.
But I have gratitude, too for the dark days. The days when a different set of eyes allows me to see the play as the clouds pass over the sky, in as many shades of grey as there are colors in a bright sunset. Oh there is beauty and magic in that play too.
…[H]ere is the work of patience: to be ready for the world to slit us, the full length of us, opening our hearts with the pellucid attention that is the watchfulness of the heron in the cove at the end of the day, when wood smoke slides onto the rising tide and slanting rain pocks the water. This patience is the birth of gratitude. pg 109
I found this to resonate with such truth. The US has just celebrated Thanksgiving (which I abstain from, as I do not celebrate the colonialist and genocidal roots of the day) and expressions of gratitude have filled our tables and our media. But what is this gratitude that comes around once per year, expressed when so many people are sitting around incredible bounty that, for the most part, they are disconnected from?
Gratitude is relational; it’s opening is found through our connection with others, be they human, plant, animal, or spirit. In our willingness to open ourselves to the experience of being in relation with the world and all of its joy and sorrow, we open ourselves to the experience of deep gratitude. It requires steadfastness, attention, and patience as the world goes by, not to be swept away by its tidal pulls. Gratitude is not appreciation as someone spoons another helping onto our plate. Though it is a building block of gratitude, appreciation so often begins in entitlement and passes as quickly as the spoon to our mouths.
The day that I took this photo, I realized that I had gone over a week without talking to or seeing a (incarnate) human being, but I was very much ok with that. I had spent the week settling into my new home, getting to know the Place and patiently watching the storm clouds roll in and pass away. I was missing the Place that I had come from (by which I mean the plants and spirits) but feeling very joyful to get to know new ones. My heart was opening into deep gratitude.
In that space, I put my very excited dog into the car and went to check out the State Park down the road. I quickly realized it was primarily a campground and there didn’t appear to be much hiking but decided to wander around, noticing the trees and variety of mosses in a small area. As I wandered I ran into the campground host who was also out for a walk with her dog. The pups made quick friends and she warmly invited me to join her on their walk. She took me to a trail I never would have found on my own and we talked about mosses and how many ferns can grow on a tree and how creeks each have their own individual sound. Giving me more tips on hiking in the area, she invited me to her church and to come back to hike with her anytime. In accepting this offering of connection from her, I left full of gratitude.
From there I drove up the hill over a gravel road through logging land, and as I rounded a curve the trees sparkled as the sun dipped beneath the clouds and the sky started to clear. I gasped with surprise and delight and my heart burst open. The joy I felt in this moment, after days of patience and the offering of my attention to the world, was indescribable. Then it clicked: it was my gratitude, the gratitude that I have held on to through all of the trials I have endured, that was the key. It was the key to my grief and sorrow and my bliss and joy.
If we open to it gratitude has the power to slit us from stern to bow, to show us the power of connection and relation – even in our sorrow.
It is my intention to bring you more stories of my interactions with nature. This is one of those, of a very strange day a couple of days ago.
I pulled a shirt from the closet – black, with an embroidered owl – and set it out with my clothes for the day. When I returned after my shower, the only shirt there was a different one – grey and covered in tiny skulls. Freaking out a bit, but deciding to go with it, I put it on. Then I got ready, put my dog in the car, and went off for our hike at the McLane Creek Nature Trail.
This was a trail I had not been to yet, chosen because the guidebooks said it was a good place to see Salmon. I felt torn about going; knowing it would be beautiful, but also that the land was state owned and was active timber country, and that it was likely there would not be many salmon in the waters, and so that sense of loss would permeate my hike.
I had just crossed the threshold from parking lot to trail when I began to hear sweet, soulful notes through the forest. It took me only a moment to make sense of the sound: someone was playing a wooden flute on the other side of the lake.
I chose my path around the loop trail – left, this time – and the undergrowth and small deciduous trees of recently timbered forest slowly shifted into decaying stumps larger than I could stretch my arms around and towering Red Cedar, deep and rich in color with roots like thick stilts rising from the nurse stumps.
The sun was just barely piercing the cloud cover and the tree canopy as I came to a fork in the trail: one way continuing on the loop, another leading out to a deck overlooking the creek that bordered the other side. A perfect triangle, and in the center of it a grove of Red cedar in the richest red, other trees as skeletons covered in bright green moss and soft grey lichen.
Just then, as I walked slowly into the grove, still listening to the flute, captivated by beauty but also something more, the sun illuminated this burnt piece of Red Cedar. As it did, mist began to rise from it’s surface like smoke. It seemed to sway in the air before slowly drifting away. I looked up and all around me as the sun began to bathe this shadowy grove in light and it seemed as if every growing thing began to stretch and then smokey mist began to rise all around me.
It felt like a miracle, like divine play all around me. I sat for a time in meditation doing japa, and then went to the creek. Indeed, I could hear only a couple of salmon, slapping in the only section deep enough in the creek; the rest of it exposed gravel bed.
I continued on my hike, marveling at the trees and fungi and the life and death all around me. Eventually I came across the person playing the flute, an elderly man sitting along the beaver pond; at this point he had been playing for well more than an hour. I thanked him for the sweet notes through the forest. And then I thanked the forest, too.
I made my first trip up to the Olympic Coast recently. It was only for a day, to acquaint myself with the area energetically, spiritually, and physically, and I only made it to Kalaloch beaches and the rainforest around Lake Quinault. I was completely overcome by those places.
As I was driving north on Highway 101 in Kalaloch, I knew to keep an eye out for the beach access trails. I passed by a couple that looked busy and too steep for me to safely get down, and then came up to a pull out and what looked like a trail leading down the bluff. I got the immediate nudge to stop, and as I approached the trail the ocean came into view, foam rolling at the beach as the wind whipped at my face. And lo! the trail was short, and gentle, with a couple of easy steps – just what my body needed that day.
It was foggy as usual on the coast, but as I arrived the fog started blowing in thicker, until I was completely surrounded with but 20 feet of visibility. I love experiencing the beach in this way; the ‘darker’ side of the ocean, completely shrouded from everything around me, alone with myself and sea. I wrote this in a moment of divine bliss:
A beach, deserted
The fog blows in, obscuring everything
beyond this moment
The ocean hums the great sound of becoming
Waves beckoning, blessing
I would dive into the bliss of it, and never surface for air
On my drive back to Olympia, I decided to stop at Quinault Lake even though it was getting late in the day. I’m so glad I did. As I was driving along the North Shore Rd, I started to wonder if I should just turn back, and I stopped to look at my position on the map. Only a third of the way around the loop. Ok, I said to myself, let’s go just a bit further until I find a place to turn around.
Then just ahead, there was a pull off big enough to park in fully, without having to worry about turning around on the tiny dirt road. I pulled in and opening up before me was the most iconic of Olympic mountain views: jagged, forested mountain peaks with snow still sugar-coating the peaks, the river winding through the valley, trees framing the entire view. It was breathtakingly beautiful and there was no one else around.
A land spirit peeked out and I caught them just out of the corner of my eye before they scurried off again. Then I smelled that unmistakable musk that tells you you are not actually alone in the forest and heard some rustling in the woods. I decided that was my cue to leave, because as romantic as encountering wild animals in the woods sounds, the reality is much different.
On my return I stopped at the rainforest nature trail, thinking it would be a short easy walk to get to know the place a bit. I was not disappointed – so much raw, powerful beauty in a half mile stroll. Every where I looked, I was completely taken aback by the grandeur and awe of it.
I wrote this poem the following day, in honor of the forest and the beings that came out to welcome me.
Here Be Giants
Once there were giants
Not creatures of myth
– though they too are for another story –
But beings of earth and water and sky
They stood, gathered sentinels
Roots reaching as deep into the earth
As their trunks rose to the sky
They were the center of everything
entire ecosystems existing on every square inch
They helped make us, protected us
Their breath our breath
Reminding us of our role here:
Stay grounded, reach for the stars
Form communities, shelter each other
Be the union between earth and sky
But we forgot how to listen
Ignored the whispers in their branches
We felled the giants
Severed them from the earth
Severed ourselves from connection
The giants fell
And so then shall we
I will definitely have to plan a trip back, hopefully to go on retreat. I’m so grateful to the Place for welcoming me, and to the People of the Quinault whose ancestral lands these are.
It was an intense day. After a rough night of grieving, I woke a little late and fired up the computer a little too soon to start working. I immediately jumped into juggling several messages, helping a couple of friends with some things, dealing with emails and doing some Many Gods West stuff. Then I had to take a break to pay bills and well – that is never a fun experience. By then, I was done – stressed, frustrated, and quickly spiraling off into some not-so-good place. It was time for some nature therapy. I dug some clothes out of a bag (I hadn’t gotten to the laundry, either – no added stress there!) and hopped in the car. I knew I was going to go for a drive through the Columbia River Gorge on the Historic Highway, but I didn’t know where I was going to stop yet. I was thinking “waterfall” but since there are dozens in the Gorge that didn’t really narrow it down. But I really enjoy just getting in the car and seeing where it takes me – intuition, spirits, and gods guiding the way.
I passed the waterfalls on the way out, and thought maybe I would stop at Horsetail, since I hadn’t felt the urge to stop anywhere else. When I didn’t get the nudge there either, I started to feel like maybe I would just turn around and go home. But then I remembered I hadn’t continued out Highway 30 to it’s junction with the interstate. I drove a couple more miles and pulled off at the parking area before I got back on to 84.
I looked at the sign – Elowah Falls trail. Oh! I had read about Elowah Falls, and the name sounds pretty awesome*. I checked in and got the definite ‘Yes – GO!’ so I tightened my hiking boots and set off, not really sure where I was going or what to expect.
The trail is just under a mile to the falls, with a few hundred feet of elevation gain; its just enough to make me feel like I’ve worked to get there; combined with the first time on a trail with no guide, it was enough to wear down any resistance. The trail parallels the interstate for the entire length of it, adding some frustration and a heaping dose of paradox.
It is beautiful – vibrant rain forest above and below. The landscape muffles the highway, but it is such that you can’t actually hear the falls until you get close enough to see it peeking through the trees and you start descending a series of switchbacks. It is a bit labyrinthine – trees growing across the trail at odd angles, washouts and rocks, green leaves and flowering plants obscuring your view.
And then you start to feel the water – the air sings with it, the earth softens with it. The trees and rocks are covered in moist moss. I dipped my hand into the pool beneath the small stream falling from the rocks and touched the sweet water to my head.
A few more steps and I stopped, my breath caught as a rush of energy went through me and tears came to my eyes. Opened before me was a great amphitheater where water played, cascading over rocks and singing with such playful joy. Elowah was falling grandly from the cliff. It felt like another time, another place; something out of a fantasy novel. The spirit of this waterfall had a kind and joyful priestess-like presence.
As I came to the falls a crow flew over my head, joining a hawk high in the sky. They did not seem to do the usual territorial debate, rather they circled and seemed to danced. Dozens of swallows flit above me, birdsong resonating through the open canyon. There were no other embodied humans there.
I usually do, at waterfalls. At least the ones that aren’t displayed as tourist attractions (*cough*Multnomah*cough* ) Something about the singing in the air, the joyful play, the gentle power – the timeless presence that is constantly in movement. It resonates with my watery-airness in a way that is comforting and pulls me right into energized alignment.
And I think about how grateful we should all be that such beauty exists. That sense of awe can not be replaced or duplicated. And yet, our capitalist society doesn’t appreciate it enough at all, beyond value as a resource. I wept for the highway that cut through this place, wept for those beings, human and non-human, who used to be here. Oh, the land spirits in the Pacific Northwest are strong and lively beings, make no mistake. But what must it have been like before we paved it over? Before we ran out and murdered the indigenous peoples that knew them as kin? Before we named new spirits in the name of progress?
I marveled at the fantastic geological formations, at all of the forces that merged and dance and broke apart over millions of years to create this place. I watched the faces in the waterfall, and formally introduced myself to the spirit there.
I’ll be returning rather frequently.
On the way home I stopped for my nod to Devil’s Club. We’re still getting to know one other, this powerful plant and I, but oh is that thread getting stronger.
And then, as I left the Gorge and made my way back into “civilization” I had to stop the car to cry again. I can’t really tell you what that was about. It was a moving cascade of things. Rather like a waterfall.
*A note on the name of the falls – Elowah. In the brief research I have done, it seems no one is claiming to know the meaning of the name or why the falls were named Elowah. A mountaineering club had the name changed in 1915. If it is/was a word in the language of the indigenous peoples, I haven’t been able to find it. In Hebrew, Elowah is another word for God (correct me if I’m wrong). I got the sense that the spirit of the falls liked the name okay and the feel of the word is appropriate, but it is not the right name. As is usually the case.
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