(Another one from the archives. I wrote this before I started working on the Gaian Tarot, and it was published in SageWoman in the Summer of 1999.)
"Following the spring branch was how I found the secret place. It was a little ways up the side of the mountain and hemmed in with laurel. It was not very big, a grass knoll with an old sweet gum tree bending down. When I saw it, I knew it was my secret place, and so I went there a lot.
Granma said . . . she reckined most everybody had a secret place, but she couldn't be certain, as she had never made inquiries of it. Granma said it was necessary. Which made me feel right good about having one."
- Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree 1
This passage from the award-winning children's book The Education of Little Tree strikes a chord in just about everyone who reads it. Who among us does not remember a secret place we stole away to as a child, that was magical, special, and sacred? Mine was a apricot tree in the backyard of my suburban Los Angeles home. I spent countless hours in her branches. When we went camping in the mountains, I always found some rock by a bend in a stream where I could settle in with my books and sketching pad, and dream the time away.
Maybe our childhood souls knew something we've forgotten as adults.
I was introduced to the concept of a "Secret Spot" as an adult through the Kamana Naturalist Training Program. As a naturalist-mentor, Jon Young teaches his students that the key to learning any nature skill is getting to know one place really, really well. We are so engrained by the dominant culture to be consumers that we are often consumers of natural places too. How many mountains have we climbed, how many valleys or seasides explored? Jon Young's assertion is that, as enticing as it is to visit many beautiful and wild places, we will never learn as much about nature (and about ourselves) as we will by being deeply intimate with one place.2
On May Morning five years ago, I sat on my porch at Heron House and sketched the garden & "the gossip of the Place" as Gary Snyder says. I don't live there anymore and our beloved neighborhood dog Rex is gone too. Still the sweetness of that May Morn persists like the scent of lilacs and lily-of-the-valley. (Here's a link to a giant version so you can read all the little notes.)
A Blessed May Day to you all!
Guest Post by Chris Chisholm, Founder, Wolf Camp and Wolf College, Puyallup, Washington
Joanna's note: Hope you are enjoying the birds in your neighborhood this Spring! I'm very excited about the robins that are building a nest right outside my back door. I asked my friend and naturalist mentor Chris Chisholm to share this teaching about learning the language of the birds. (Chris is the model for the 5 of Earth and Explorer of Air.) Hope you like it!
My second grade teacher was giving us a written test in language arts and I smugly turned in my paper, laughing at how easy the questions were this time. She was quizzing us about the ways of nature. The next day, I hurriedly looked at my paper, expecting to have aced the test.
I was devastated to realize I had gotten wrong what I had thought was the easiest question on the test. Do animals talk to each other? Of course they do. After playing in the woods of northern Minnesota every day of my young life, and befriending the robins of our family garden, I knew that animals — especially the birds — talked to each other all the time.
But Mrs. Stromwick, bless her heart, marked my answer wrong, and it was a life changing moment. I’m not sure I ever felt a part of nature again for the next fifteen years of my schooling, not until I read Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children after graduating from college.
Upon finishing his book, I went outside to sit quietly, in my garden. I listened, just like I had done as a child, and the birds woke me up again to the spirit of nature. I heard more than bird songs and calls. I heard what Brown referred to as the “concentric rings” of communication in nature.
The concentric rings of nature are, simply, animals talking to one another. Don’t dismiss it, but don’t believe it, until you’ve really listened to them in action. Mostly, the birds are the newscasters of nature, although the squirrels, frogs and other animals are very vocal as well.
Consider for a second the possibility that a whole new world of nature may remain hidden from if you don’t take time to learn the language of the birds. Don’t you have the vague feeling that you hike past a lot of hidden wildlife — the deer laying in the thicket, the coyote silently watching your every move, or the minutes-old cougar tracks indicating that she heard you coming?
Many of us love gardening, maybe for the beautiful flowers the birds pollinate, or to witness the interaction of plants with the elements, or simply to breathe the clean, fresh air hovering over the upturned soil. But how often have we stopped to wonder what a bird visiting our garden is saying to us? We may love bird watching, and we may even be able to identify many species by their songs. But what happens when we finish our checklists?
I loved working in this cafe on the bay today. Just enough of a change in location to shake the creative juices up and get 'em moving. And of course I got to be near my beloved Mama Ocean.
It was a wild, cold, sunny, blustery day. Utter perfection IMO. And after the cafe and the writing and the lattes, a nice long walk by the bay.
“There is a spirituality indigenous to every land. When you move in harmony with that spirit of place, you are practicing native (not Native) spirituality.”
— Loren Cruden, The Spirit of Place 1
“For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island. . . . Europe or Africa or Asia will then be seen as the place our ancestors came from, places we might want to know about and to visit, but not ‘home.’ Home — deeply, spiritually — must be here.” — Gary Snyder, Practice of the Wild 2
“But can non-indigenous people really presume to become native? . . . What kind of nativeness is possible and to what extent can we become native to the land?”
— David Landis Barrett, At Home on the Earth 3
Since enrolling in Jon Young’s Kamana Naturalist Training Course, 4 the word “native” and all that it implies is frequently on my mind. The Kamana course teaches us to “see with native eyes,” as Young puts it, and emphasizes that this ability is not for Native Americans only but is a learned skill. Once introduced to the concept of “becoming native,” I seemed to find it everywhere.