Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
ďI feel my powers returning.Ē Joseph Buckman-Ellis, age 10, riding in an RV headed back to Minnesota after Kateís parents 50th wedding anniversary in Phoenix, Arizona. I know Iíve used this before, but I like it so much, and it has wide application.
Yesterday and today I have seen breaks in the clouds, small areas of blue sky and sunshine. It is a heady experience, and one I donít altogether trust; I came into the blues without knowing why or how, so can I be certain theyíre leaving?
Still, I remember those days when a vicious cold has subsided, then vanished, leaving me on my feet and alive. I recall the end of various degree programs and the end of a vigorous workout. The energy uplift is like a thermal, I can ride it for awhile, wings spread, powers regained.
Iím ready. I want to feel my powers returning.
Preparations for Kateís party proceed apace. Iíve begun removal of various piles of pruning, left aside over the summer months, and not so ugly to us, but, when contemplated from the perspective of a guest wandering the grounds, ďOoohhh. Whatís that trash there? All the brown things,Ē itís better removed. It looks better in its proper place anyhow, up the hill, behind the seven oaks, providing dark, organic spaces for rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, field mice, leopard frogs, grasshoppers, and garter snakes.
As I pulled out the dead Magnolia tree branch I cut off in July a large Leopard frog, longer than my hand, scooted away under a pile of oak leaves. I noticed other things slither, hop, and crawl away though I couldnít identify them.
When I put these branches behind the oaks, as Iíve done for years now, I applaud again natureís ability to reabsorb her own. Though I have six or seven years worth of brush and debris up there, it is invisible. Decomposition takes it all sooner or later, but before that snow weights it down and compresses the branches together, then, early in the spring the Virginia creeper vines, wild cucumber, and grape vines all begin to weave in and out of the piles, camouflaging all the detritus with green. The advancing army of raspberry canes (donít laugh unless youíve ever tried to stop their relentless march.) covers some, too. There is, too, the occasional poison ivy plant, but Iíve worked hard at beating them back with Brush-be-gone, the herbicidal heavy cavalry, used only for noxious woody perennials, and then, only in small areas.
The cover provided for wildlife makes these brush piles a positive good to one part of my self, but the predator, the Farmer McGregor part, would adopt a scorched earth policy toward gophers and rabbits since the little bastards eat my hostas, lilies, and vegetables.
More brush piles. Dogwood pruned earlier to encourage new growth. The new growth is red, makes good deer browse and excellent contrast with snow. As I put these branches into the woods, I looked at the trees and realized Iíve not gotten as far on woodlot management as Iíd hoped. I have my Weed Wrench to go after the buckthorn. After the party and as we move more toward fall, Iíll go in and start removing the buckthorn so serviceberry and other indigenous understory plants can begin to take back their original place.
Another day at least level, no drag down feeling. My dreams though are about going back to graduate school, getting a Ph.D. The emphasis in them seems more on the thrill of being in school than in getting academic work done.
Dreams fit into our pilgrimage. I think of Abram, promised descendants like the stars in the sky. Joseph called before Pharaoh to interpret the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows. Jacobís ladder to heaven with angels going up and coming down.
James Hillman says the gods show up in our symptoms, in our pathologies; I find them just as often in my dreams.
Dreams can help us see the path, find the way free of obstacles. This is one of Batchelorís points in the wonderful Parabola article. The way, or the path itself is nothing. Emptiness. If you walk along a path, get down on your hands and knees, look for the path; all you will see is an open space with two sides.
The path is emptiness; it is the way free of obstacles. We know this when, in a forest for example, we get off the path. Pathís provide a way to a destination, a way free of obstacles. But when we are off the path we stumble over rocks, deadfalls, and into holes. We no longer trust our direction, there is no way free of obstacles for us to follow. We are, at this point, lost.
When we find our way back to the path, we once again trust the way ahead. We can have confidence in our journey.
In the Presbyterian ordination process ordination is granted only ďif the way be clear.Ē Thus, the call is a spiritual path only if the way opens before the candidate. It doesnít always.
When we are lost, wandering off our pilgrim path, dreams can help us in wayfinding, (I just thought of Jimmie Johnsonís description of himself as a wayfinder.) in getting back to the path.
The dreams Iíve had want to lead me somewhere, but Iím not astute enough to discern where. Thatís why I have John Desteian and the Woollyís. I need help in discernment, help to discern my path again, to find the way that is clear.
Another morning on the path of gardening. Weíve taken indoor plants outdoors, always a bit perilous for a couple of reasons: 1. Sun scald. If youíre not careful, the harsh, direct rays of the sun can burn the leaves, send the plant into shock. Also, in the past couple of weeks, our nightly lows have dipped well below the minimum temps for many tender indoor plants. 2. Bugs. Inside the atmosphere, while not bug free, does not provide much in the way of habitation for plant pests, but outside, well, itís bug heaven. Aphids, small spiders, even slugs and leaf eaters all prey on outdoor plants and often skip the ones indoors.
I mentioned the three waters ritual I did for Tom and Roxann before their pilgrimage to Bath, Glastonbury, Avebury, Wells, Tintagle, and a crowded London. They dropped by today with a crystal vessel filled with water from the Chalice Well at Glastonbury and a sprig of yew from an ancient Yew outside Wellís Cathedral.
The Yew sprig has a pungent, aromatic air even after its travels. Iíve put it and the decanter on my shelf devoted to research for the Great Wheel, where also reside waters from the Sea of Galilee, Winnifredís Holy Well in Holywell, North Wales, and Lake Superior.
With the notion from last week of being born to a place I want to emphasize the unique and sacred nature of every part of the planet. These two gifts, the Yew and its connections to the Celtic Faery Faith, and the waters of the Chalice Well, with its Christian and mystical links to Avalon and the Arthurian legends, evoke the sacred nature of southwest England.
Imagine a temple, vast, bigger than the temple of Diana at Ephesus, bigger than St. Peters or Westminster, bigger even than the temple complexes associated with the Pyramids. Envision within it a huge, but not infinite number of chapels, small alcoves dedicated, each one, to the sacred and singular character of each place on earth.
Each chapel has a guardian, a steward, and a devoted group of worshippers. Altars, made of wood or rock or earth, set at an appropriate direction, hold gifts like the Yew and Chalice Well water, or sand from the Great Anoka Sand Plain and an oaken bowl filled with acorns from the bur oaks of the Savannah. In others silk cloth, dyed by indigenous plants and woven from cocoons of the native silk worm, covers the altar, drapes walls; in other places cotton cloth, in others Elk hide, Yak hide. Perhaps tea plants grow in a protected corner, or a block of ice is the altar; jade or emerald or ruby or diamonds light up others. Corn stalks, maybe a rod and piston lay on some altars.
Wander the halls of this great temple. You are welcome in each chapel, greeted by the stewards and those born to each place.
You understand the devotion expressed in these chapels because you too have a home chapel, a place to which you are born, and for which you are a guardian, a steward, and one among others who acknowledge the sacred character of your land.
It is in this temple I find my true faith. In fact, I can imagine a greater templeóone in which this temple, devoted to the sacred places on earth, is only one of billions, each devoted to a particular object in the known universe. In fact, I can go one more step and imagine a temple which contains even this temple, a temple for each universe in the multiverse. And, even within this last, a temple as large as I can conceive, still, you would have a home chapel; a place among the now infinite number of chapels to which you belong.
So, in the first place I have an intimate link to small Heartland towns, ones with implement dealers and homes for factory workers. In the second place I have an intimate link to the rural, countryside divided into farms, crisscrossed with roads in geometric patterns, railroads and rivers to carry grain and corn, and the swollen concrete silos of elevators. There are feed stores, barns, homes set on patches of lawn surrounded by windbreaks and acres, often hundreds of acres of plowed fields. And now there are often windmills, great blades scything the air.
In one way my point here is simple: these memories shape the terrain in which I feel comfortable, where I understand myself in relation to the terrain; just as a woman I used to date, Carolyn Levy, feels at home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, or another, M.J. Hedstrom, raised in Grand Marais, felt when she saw the rocky shores of Lake Superior.
Seen in a different light these memories also form the core of my self, for we do not emerge full blown, neither are we a tabula rasa; no, the slate has far more written on it than we ever used to imagine, but the gap between broad proclivities and actual self, the unique, irreplaceable you gets filled in by such critical content as parents, friends, culture, and geography. The geography is not only the physical container, the earthen vessel for parents, friends, and culture; it is also an actor, a shaper, necessarily mediated through your unique experience, of course, but consider a person raised on the shore of Lake Superior and another raised in the industrial/agriculture belt of Indiana. The terrain will shape each person in unique ways, yes, but it will shape also according to its own unique reality and I can tell you from personal experience that the rugged western shore of Lake Superior is very different in feel from the corn fields and manufacturing plants around Alexandria, Indiana.
I need to break in here with an internal weather bulletin, again. The uptick I noticed the last couple of days has proved transient. Today, the day after the meeting at Mai Village, I feel down, way down. The burden, whatever it is, has a physical impact today. Iím slow, weary, wooden.
I canít recall feeling this sad since a time long ago in Lindstrom after my first divorce. Then, I sat outlining the Victorian wallpaper design with my eyes, absorbed for hours at a time with nothing more than following a curlicue to its tip, then taking the closest route into the next flower, outlining it, then onto the next and so on. Rocking. Nothing happening. Only gray. A dull, gray day as my Aunt Roberta used to say.
There is no immediate cause I can identify; there is sadness over missed life, but why now? There is some conflict over family occasioned by Maryís visit and fed by preparations for the trip to Southeast Asia. None of this is new and as I said last evening, itís so repetitive. That makes me feelónot hopeless or despairing, but whatever precedes those feelings. Sadness, grief, doubtful.
When I spoke last night, I could feel the cloak of grief wrap round me, make the words hard. The sadness welled up and was strong. It surprised me. ďI want to be intellectually significant.Ē While true, it sounds lame even to me. Like a former football hero wanting a return to the glory days. Only, I never had the glory days.
Jesus. Iím gonna leave this stuff in, though I have urge to edit it out. It feels shameful, and I suppose, that adds to the general down feeling. Damn. This is circular. Bah, humbug. Out for now.
Got some stuff done. Spread moss. Worked out. Sorted out piles of magazines, papers. Moved things into a garden shed. This kind of work always helps. I feel less down now.
Did you ever see Ramar of the Jungle, or Sgt. Preston of the Yukon? These were early TV dramas. I liked them and though they were set in opposing climates they did have similarities. A favorite theme in both involved an epidemic, no medicine, medicine available but faraway from the need, and only Ramar/Sgt. Preston could brave the jungle/blizzard and make it through in time. Many mishaps later and always in the knick of time they would deliver the drugs and save the day.
Ramar and Tarzan got me interested in Africa, an interest I continued to have through my early 30ís though it has faded. Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, many trips to Canada, and later Jack London began a lifelong fascination with the north.
When Judy wanted to move to Wisconsin, I said yes with little thought. I saw pine trees, lakes, snow, wolves, dogsleds. A northern frontier.
Boy, was I surprised when we got to Appleton. Paper mills and dairy processing plants had polluted the Fox River; it ran into Lake Winnebago and polluted the lake. The Fox Cities had a population density close to Madison County where I grew up and as for pine trees, lakes, wolves, and dogsleds...there were snowmobiles, deer hunters, and lots of deciduous trees.
There was, however, serious winter. That first winter in Appleton the temperatureís got down to 20 below zero and one two day period we had over 18 inches of snow. I loved this part. I brought my battery inside and kept it warm; investigated the differences between engine block heaters and dipstick heaters, and bought my first ever down coat.
All of this was exotic. Indiana has miserable winters; snow interspersed with rain and mud and ice storms. Wisconsin had a definite season and it was winter. For sure.
Of course, the longer I stayed in the Upper Midwest, the more I discovered the north Iíd wanted. After moving to the Twin Cities, I located the pine forests, lakes, even the wolves and dogsleds.
Some part of my soul, nourished in those afternoons alone in the car listening to the Indianapolis 500 or tucked in a corner of the Alexandria Public Library, needs the north, both its physical expression and its spiritual meaning.
I do not know what north signifies in other traditions, but in mine it is the place of purity, sparseness, emptiness, wilderness, whiteness, cold, clarity, isolation, singularity. And finality, the furthest you can go from here lies north in my world. I have no equivalent feelings for the other directions, though I do have themes among them, too.
The south, for me, is Gothic, dark, humid, romantic, brutal, hostile, historic, mired in yesterday.
The east has ivy covered walls, towers of ivory, a certain heady wielding of power, blood running blue, waters lapping the shores of Europe and Great Britain. Dawn.
The west has empty spaces, mass in the mountains, desert, sun, Hollywood and old people, places where nuclear and other secrets are kept. The west has an occult aura: the sun sets, area 51, Trinity, and the Anasazi.
There are other places, at least in my imagination, which call to me: the empty quarter on the Arabian Penninsula, Lake Baikal, Kashmir, Olduvai Gorge, the headwaters of the Amazon, Kyoto, Tierra del Fuego to name a few.
In this language my journey has taken me south, into the Gothic, brutal, and historic parts of my soul. I wander there, going from Georgia to Alabama, and on to the Yucatan, perhaps up to Nahuatl territory where hearts leapt out of chests to keep the sun rising.
This is the region of my Self where my own slaves are kept, the parts of me still in chains, fettered by fear and repetition. As I travel here, I feel like Dante moving through the Inferno. I come upon familiar faces: a young boy running out of the house into a consuming darkness, a young man confronted with his first academic failure, a young man enraged by the injustice of the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, and in loco parentis. Down here is the young man frightened of the future. He gets married; convinces himself graduate school is an upper class plot; and, wins thirty years of veering off course, not wasted years, but years spent at a tangent to his true gifts.
This is the young man drinking a Singapore Sling in his study room, a freshman. Lighting up a cigarette. Taking his first hit from a joint. Dropping acid. Exploring with mescaline and pscylocibin.
The same young man so immersed in philosophy and anthropology he never came up for real life, his emotions fueled his curiosity and his destructiveness.
This is where I keep the attack dogs of my psyche, too. In these times, these sad dark times, the dogs get loose. All the many mistakes of a lifetime, no matter how trivial bite and snap at my own ankles, even my genitals and my throat.
I broke it off with Ellen Reese, to whom I lost my virginity, without a backward glance. I missed too many meetings as a candidate for Student Body President. Why? Drunk or high. I married Judy. I never followed through on graduate school. I stayed in the church for fifteen years. Geez. And so on. The list drags on and has its own associations, not free anymore, but with well worn grooves, one example of error leading smoothly to the next and then the next and so on.
Do you ever read statistics? I do. One I read recently was that 30% or was it 40% of the American population have a diagnosable condition found in the DSM. This does not surprise me. What does surprise me is the inference from this that somewhere between 60% and 70% of the population donít.
I suppose itís the deluded conceit of a 30%íer, but itís difficult to imagine anyone without fears, doubts, uncertainties, quagmires of emotion, complexes and pathologies. I mean this. Iíve checked among the people I know well and I donít know any who fit into this larger group. None. Not a single one.
Itís possible birds of a feather flock together or something like that, but, come on... None. I think it more likely the numbers are the inverse, that the human condition is such that itís damned difficult and that a degree of neurosis is the price of maturity, maybe is the definition of maturity.
This would mean that the exceptional folks are the stable, calm, integrated folk, perhaps old wise ones and the few borne to unusual circumstances: a happy home, good parents, no unusual trauma in childhood, no physical challenges.
Is this cynical? I canít tell, but I donít think so.
Through no fault of my own I ended up with a subscription to Psychology Today. I read in an article this advice: donít pay any more attention to your self than you need to to get through the day. There was more in a similar vein. It was sort of a Cosmopolitan Magazine approach to happiness.
On this I am serious. 3,000 years ago pilgrims seeking knowledge on Mt. Parnassus came to the sacred city of Delphi, wait to the temple of Apollo to consult the Pythian oracle. Over the doorway they had to pass through was the famous Greek sentence: gnothi seauton. Know thyself. This was, by the way, a key to the Delphic oracle, whose pronouncements were often obscure, riddle-like. The assumption was that to gain the knowledge a supplicant sought they must bring self-knowledge to both the question they asked and the answer they received.
Croesus, the famous king whose name is synonymous with wealth, asked the oracle about an upcoming battle with the Persians. He would, the oracle said, fight a battle and a great kingdom would be lost. The oracle was true. In the battle Croesus was defeated and lost his kingdom. He had not assessed his situation well or he might have interpreted the oracleís answer in a different light.
There is no pilgrimage whose path does not run through the torii of self-knowledge; it is a sine qua non for authenticity and spiritual depth. The Buddhists say you must eliminate the self, but they mean, as I understand it, ego. The Self is equivalent to buddha-nature and knowing and accepting your Buddha-nature is key to enlightenment.
Kate and I donít entertain much, most years not at all. Itís a combination of things, but most of all it is our mutual introversion and our general reticence about social gatherings, even our own. Still, weíre caught up in the preparations and excitement about the party on Sunday.
I will dig in last minute purple plants over the next two days, cut out yellowed leaves, and dead branches. Spent blooms will go and certain plants will get a bit of touch up pruning. We are ready, save for the kind of things that have to wait for the last minute. It feels good.
www.Grailbooks.org links gardening and contemplation and gardening and writing in a new book by a man named Alexander Versulsis. He lives on a farm in Michigan and teaches at Michigan State.
Iíve not read it, so I canít comment on the book itself, but the connections he makes emerge for me, too. Writing, especially writing about gardens and forests, their plants and animals, terrain and climate has a Buddhist element. Be here now. Paying attention is the key to both nature writing and Buddhism.
Thus, it is common to sink into reverie in the garden, or on a walk through the woods, but not a reverie of transcendence, rather an experience of immanence, immersion in the world of a hostaís flower, a leafeaterís green body and gauzy wings, shade cast by a cloud castle. This reverie can lead one to contemplative thoughts, to stillness, and then into meditation.
Meditation is a dialogue between your soul and the world; the dialogue may begin with wonder at the soft red petals of a rose or a pile of scat on the trail. I have often found myself drawn into the cycle of life by mushrooms, moss, crumbling wood on a decaying log. I have followed evolutionís path when my pilgrimage crossed the trail of a frog, once a mass of tapioca like eggs, then a tadpole. An animal still able to live in two elements: in water and on land.
The link between this meditation and writing comes to me in moments like this one, at the keyboard after a day of work in the garden. Moist earth and the crushed seed pods of a Cleome linger on my fingers, the smell rises as I type. How can I leave it outside when I have taken it inside?
There is another link to and one I hope to explore with this very text at the end of the writing process. In a garden seeds germinate, plants grow, weeds crop up and interfere. Cultivation requires eliminating weeds and fertilizing the plants I want to nourish.
This discipline of writing these weekly entries (really daily, for I write them usually each day.) is like casting seeds out on a tilled garden bed, or taking a nursery plant and transplanting it into the garden. Many entries flower and become desirable; some choke the others like weeds. Cultivation, or revision, will try to remove the weeds and nourish the flowers, help them grow into mature thoughts.
The revision process is a discipline, too, and it all takes weeks and months to unfold, to see the garden in fullness. One more connection, not to belabor this too much, is that certain plants flower in their season, then die back, not gone, but gathering energy and preparing for the next growing season, in Minnesota, almost always the next year.
I anticipate that these entries hold many thoughts that flowered in the season in which I wrote them, but may no longer have a place in this yearís garden. Thus, while not weeds, they will come out, too, not to disappear, but to be set aside, laid fallow until their season returns.
As I close this week, the garden is ready. The food order is confirmed. The tent, too, will show up in spite of a ďWe can find no record of your order, sir.Ē Yikes. Lawnís in trim. Joseph will set up the computer and the sound system for music. Various flags, banners, a welcome mat, the prize quilt and secondary prizes sit ready for delivery to lucky winners. Bubbles in sufficient quantity for our anticipated guests wait with expectation. Invitations and reminders have gone out; rsvps have come in.
Now the weather. Hmmm. 40% chance of thunder showers. Ah, well. We have a big basement.
My internal weather has sunshine for right now and Iím glad of it. The gloomy stuff, in addition to being painful, also gets boring. Same old, same old. To have the down draft become so common as to render itself first usual, then repetitive, then boring... Well, it seems insulting somehow.
Anyhow. As the newspaper guys say: