Getting to Know You ~ Sense of Place Part IX

I once thought that my husband Jim and I had bought and therefore owned this beautiful land parcel in Central New Hampshire. But over the years we’ve lived here, the idea that we actually own the land we walk – or any other land, for that matter – has become increasingly untenable. We do not own the land we walk, but we do walk it. I no longer look east to Jerusalem for the Holy Land. The Holy Land lies under my every footfall.

The first years we were here, our walks consisted of traveling the ready-made path from our house to the waters of Tannery Pond and back. Sometimes with dogs, sometimes without. Sometimes with hearts in our throats as the pond ice began its melt, and the resident bear started to wake up, other times with the confidence that our black neighbor had moved further into the mountains for her summer foraging.

One year we carved a second trail, up an over the ridge, where we can look down upon the vernal pools that are home to the spring frogs whose throaty crackling shouts of awakening sometimes sound like someone or something is being tortured. Not the case, of course. I like to think of it as the joy of awakening.

This winter has been an odd one, with very little snow, but enough rain and sleet to create solid paths of ice, treacherous even to me in my crampons, which I keep on my boots from December to April. So the dogs and I have had to find new ways. As we meander off path, I sing this song composed by my friend Alaan Classen, whose lyrics, in part, read:



rock watcher

Degaje . . . degaje

Somehow we will find a way

Where there’s no way, there’s a way.


By wandering where the ice is not, we have begun to form relationship with various trees, rocks, and vernal pools. As I sing, I give them names:

Upper Slingshot

Lower Slingshot (pictured)lowerslingshot

Green Lagoon

Rock Watcher (above)

The Gates (below)


I love to do this, as it connects me deeply – and so much more deeply than in years past – with every part of the land we walk. I like to think the trees, pools, and rocks tolerate with curiosity my need to name them.gates

“What’s in a name?” they ask one another. “Why does she feel the need to name us?”

I do know that I am always glad to see them, denizens of the woods who’ve been there far longer than I, especially the granite. The trees were clear-cut a century ago, and I suspect, or at least hope, that my naming them honors their resilience and insistence to rise again.

Does naming matter? I don’t really know, other than the naming brings me closer in, helps me into a state of greater mindfulness. Perhaps – although none of them has yet to admit it – they really enjoy my erstwhile efforts to make connection.

*degaje is the name given to a ballet movement, when one leg disengages with another

To Re-establish Kinship ~ Sense of Place Part VIII

To Re-establish Kinship

As pastor of a California congregation whose commitment was to the development of a paradigm for multi-generational worship, the challenge for me was to honor the traditional practices of the church while at the same time redesigning the elements of the ritual in such a way that any one, of any age – of any faith or no faith for that matter – could participate with integrity.

We had good story tellers, actors, and artists in the congregation, of all ages, and so the dramatization of the scriptural stories along with the liturgical art to accompany them unfolded with relative ease. More difficult was the worship piece called the Confession of Sin. How it appears in the Book of Common Prayer is as a long, very long, string of words, with no silences for thinking about the many things “done and left undone”.

An idea slithered its way into an afternoon alpha state – I was lying on the floor of my office; it had to do with partnering river stones with running water. Of the many scriptural stories of rocks and water, I chose three: the discovery by the Israelites in the desert that if they were to strike the rock at Meribah, water would flow; the rocks placed across the Jordan River by the twelve tribes which became the path into the Promised Land; and the convert Paul referring to the risen Christ as Rock. wpid508-water

At the appropriate time, each member of the congregation was invited to choose a stone from the basket, weaving its way down the aisle by the efforts of a couple of the youngest. I asked the people to hold onto their rock; think about the things they had done that they wished they hadn’t; the things they hadn’t done that they wished they had; and to lift those regrets from their hearts and place them on the rocks. The same children then gathered the rocks, brought them forward, and with words of compassion and forgiveness, I poured water over the rocks and into the baptismal font. Regrets named, promises made, regrets released, and washed away, a new heart given. Although I imagine I did mention God from time to time, I didn’t have to. Rock and water were enough.

During a Reiki session one evening, I described the ritual to the body worker as she stood over me, and her reaction both surprised and disturbed me. “You lay your sins and regrets on the rocks and expect them to carry your burdens? Did you ask them? Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?”

I had no answer at the time, and although I thought about it in a guilty kind of way for quite some time, I finally relinquished the concern and thus yielded to the power of the ritual. Rock and water.

Frederique Apffel-Marglin reminds us that before the beginnings of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, we lived in diverse communities of other-than-humans, with a lively host of spirits – of trees, of waters, of creatures – spirits who teased us, played with us, chastised us, educated us, communicated with us, all as they accompanied us on our earthly journeys.

In Subversive Spiritualities she writes, “The beings of this world taught us . . . they had reasons for existing, their own requirements, and their own agency. We needed to ask permission, to share, to give back, and to give thanks.” (p 3-4)

I find now that I am revisiting the angry words of my Reiki master. I still don’t appreciate the aggressive manner in which she asked her questions, yet there was fodder enough in her thinking to accompany me for more than twenty years.

Thomas Berry arrived in my life during those twenty years, in the form of books, recordings, and interviews. In a conversation with Caroline Webb, Berry insists, “Every being has rights. Every being, to exist . . . has three rights: the right to be; the right to habitat; and the right to fulfill its role in the great community of existence.”

So, what is the role of a rock? Maybe I should ask the question differently. Does a rock have a spiritual role? Likewise, what might be the spiritual role of water?images

Because the refrain “the waters of grief” keeps looping in my heart, and I am thinking about eco-justice and rocks and yearning and grief and water and release and rebirth. This is a new day for new ritual, and, as Robin Kimmerer and Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Jeanette Armstrong and so many others remind us, it’s a time for permission, for sharing, for reciprocity, for mindfulness, and for gratitude. God or no God, it doesn’t matter; it is time, way past time, to know that the Holy Land lies under our very feet. How are we going to learn to honor and celebrate that?

That is kinship. It lies deep in our human memory and in the memory of everything that has life.

A Sense of Place Part VII ~ Coming Home

Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman surgeon. In her book The Scalpel and the Silver Bear she chronicles her wayfinding, first to Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, then to Stanford Medical School.

Born of a Navajo father and a “blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very attractive” mother, there was not ever a time that Lori Arviso Alvord did not live out of the paradox of being of two worlds and belonging to none.

She writes of the four sacred mountains which encompass the Navajo Reservation, mountains which form a circle to keep her people safe. Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, Blanca Peak, and the La Plata Range. To leave this mountain embrace to go east to school was a frightening prospect. The gift of these mountains was a sense of place.

Once I knew place. The unpredictability of my family life would often yield to chaos, and it was during those times I would make my escape. Packing whatever was portable in the refrigerator and a bottle of water, I would ease my way out of the brick patio door, skim over the lawn, through the tall meadow grasses (where I could begin to relax, as they were taller than I) and into the woods. From there I followed a secret way which led to a series of rock caves, big enough for crawling, big enough for sitting cross legged. Small enough to remain undiscovered, small enough to hide. grey two

The rocks which defined the caves were irresistible to a pre-pubescent child, and I would taste each one with my tongue. The ritual required that I taste them according to size. I tasted the dirt, tgrey 1he moss, nibbled on the ferns. I did not know the word sacrament; I know now that my relationship to the rock caves and the earth around them was a sacramental relationship.

That was my place. To this day I have a ritual of laying my cheek against a particular boulder on my daily walks, touching my tongue to it, and offering silent tribute to the rock caves of my childhood. To this day I can walk through the woods and smell the damp and rotted mossy earth of the forest floor in rural Western Pennsylvania. If I can embrace with integrity the concept of indigenous solely as it relates to place, then I claim those caves as my place. I belonged.

But it’s not so simple. I’ve not belonged to any land since in the way I belonged to the rock caves. I wonder if it’s the long ago glimpse of belonging to a place in a ritual way that frames the intensity of my yearning today. And maybe I am getting closer. Although I am not encircled by four mountains which proscribe my home, I have a path to the water, to Tannery Pond in Wilmot, New Hampshire. It’s not a long path, and so my husband Jim has cleared a couple trails like switchbacks, to lengthen the walk. I walk these trails three and often four times a day, with our three dogs who are at home in the woods. Every adventure shows me something I’ve not seen before: a boulder; a White Pine; green fungus against a lichen covered stone; the curl of the bark of a birch; one brilliant red maple leaf fallen among a bed of yellow poplar; a certain mist on the pond itself.

This morning it was the mist, and the stark black bare branches over my head, entangled to form a squirrel’s paradise. As I remember those caves of long ago, I remember them as mine. Now I understand what I couldn’t at the time. These trails I walk do not belong to me, but I to them. And with that understanding comes the trust that day by day I am coming home. I belong to this place.

The Paris Summit on Climate Change ~ Why We Care

“As you prepare to come to the Paris Summit in December, we would like to ask you to think about your personal role, and answer a simple, but profound, question: Why do I care?”
Organised by Nicolas Hulot, special envoy for the French President for the protection of the planet,  the letter asks each delegation member to think about what a greenhouse gas slashing pact will mean for themselves. “Your response might be very personal – the influence of a parent, child or grandparent; the influence of culture or personal beliefs; the influence of a transformative experience of the wonder and beauty of nature; a crisis in your life which brought you back to core values,” the letter continues. “In our contemporary world it is very rare that we are asked to talk about what lies at the heart of our actions. Instead we hide behind statistics, data, policy statements etc, few of which actually touch other people’s hearts and minds.”

A picture taken on January 14, 2015 shows the logo of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, the Cop 21 summit in Paris, on January 14, 2015.   AFP PHOTO /JACQUES DEMARTHON

I am struck by the brilliant simplicity of this question and thought I would spend some time with it. What follows is Round One.

I care about the release of our human sense of primacy and entitlement. I care about us as humans growing our capacity to know our appropriate place within the earth community. I care about our awakening to the interdependence of the human and non-human world. I care about our awakening to the sacredness of this world, this universe. I care about our awakening to the intimate connection between human health and well being and ecological health and well being. parisI care about the entanglement of biodiversity and human diversity. I care about the entanglement of ecological justice and human social justice. I care deeply and desperately about this earth. I care about the unfailing generosity of earth, water, air, and fire. I care that earth, water, plants, trees, creatures love me and us. I care that we have so circumscribed what it means to be intelligent and conscious beings that we cannot conceive of the consciousness or cognitive ability of non-human species. I care about elemental and sacramental ritual which engages the whole earth community. I care about the concept of a decentralized soul.

I am hoping that you do this with me, and post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Sense of Place Part VI ~ The Dance of Beauty and Gratitude

It is not new news that my three dogs walk me or entice me at least three and sometimes four times a day down to the little pond which borders our property. It’s not a long walk, maybe half a mile round trip, and my husband Jim, by cutting a switchback trail up the ridge, makes it seem like more of a hike.

The dogs reach the pond long before I do, and often I find the smallest of the bunch, Althea – weighing in at forty pounds – halfway across the water, chasing a duck which she forgets has wings and can fly. I call her back, just her nose and tail visible above the water line.

At the edge of the pond is an old moss-covered rotted stump. Considerate enough to have a ledge for me to sit, I do sit, and am grateful. I think about this old stump, the tree it once was. I peer at the moss and the lichens, slipping into the timelessness of watching spiders, ants, and other small creatures . . . imagining the billions I can’t see.

I think about the roots of this old stump, still exchanging nutrients with the other trees of the woods, still an integral part of our pond ecosystem. I think of Trebbe Johnson and her insistence that the way we heal earth and self is by walking into the wounded and disregarded places, with love and in the recognition of the beauty even in the unlovely

I want to do something in appreciation of this soft damp mossy stump that forms such a perfect cushion for my sitting and my daydreaming.

One morning, on the first of the days walks, I pick up a bright orange mushroom that has been severed from its stem. It looks like a small blaze of fire as I cradle it in my hand, and when I arrive at the stump by the pond, I know what to do with it. I lay it along the side, supported by moss. A couple days go by, and I find a piece of birch bark, which I lay against the side of the stump. Then a cluster of oak leaves which surprises me because there are no oaks in sight. Where did this fly in from, I wonder.

Within a couple weeks, the stump is clothed in shapely sticks, iridescent stones, lichen covered bark, a pine cone or two, a clump of white pine needles, the discarded shells of pine nuts and acorns, even a shell – another curiosity.stump

By way of confession, I had a struggle with the feather of a blue jay. I wanted to take it home, but didn’t.

I have to say, it’s not only beautiful, this ancient stump, but it’s the perfect expression of my gratitude, for it’s life, for the comfort it offers me, and for the generosity it continues to offer as habitat for immeasurable life, and as food exchange for its kin.

Sitting on the shelf of the stump is a timeless experience. My dogs are content to sit by the waters edge and watch.

Does it matter, I wonder, that I do this? Does it make a difference? Such a small thing!bluejay

I like to think it matters to the tree, and to the life which surrounds it, but I can’t be certain about that.

I do know it matters to me. From this simple four-times-a-day ritual emerges an increasing awareness of where I put each foot as I climb the switchback, an increasing consciousness of the exquisite life and beauty of which I am but a small part. The thrushes deep in the woods seem to sing more often and more clearly, or at least I am more aware. The capacity of my heart to deepen and broaden its embrace is a daily gift, and it is enough.

I know that I am a better, kinder, more mindful, more contemplative, and more careful human, as I rejoice in my increasing acceptance into a partnership of life and death, of beauty and gratitude.