By: Janis Gingermountain
The rural refuge I moved to fifteen years ago was littered with trash and beer cans. Its small pond had been treated with copper sulfate to keep weeds and algae out, and its garden was saturated with chemicals. Beginning the process of healing myself and the land turned out to be much more than the first obvious steps of picking up garbage and abandoning poisons. My true education had begun, and has continued to this day.
As I muse on what the land and the earth have taught me, I would like to propose five steps that you and I can take to renew ourselves, and in the process bring newness to the face of the earth. We will be able to bless, pray for, and bring healing energy to the earth, and she in turn will show us her beautiful and life-giving secrets.
For each of us the working-out of these steps will be unique, and part of the excitement will be learning from those humans, creatures, trees, rocks, and plants we meet along the way.
#1. Separate ourselves from the mainstream and get close to the earth. A good way to start removing ourselves from the clutter, clatter, and strain of typical daily existence is by choosing a quiet vacation in nature, trying on a serene, outdoor-centered life. Two of us and a dog spent an autumn week driving and tenting our way around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Hiking to some of the area’s 120 waterfalls and beachcombing for driftwood, birch bark, and feathers were daily pleasures. Nightly camping on the shores of Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, stargazing, then drifting to sleep in our cozy tent while waves lapped the shore were like heaven. We slowed way down. The cost was practically nothing: it was possibly cheaper than we could have lived at home.
Vacation over, we can find ourselves a place to go on retreat on a regular basis, to be alone, a place where life can be lived at its simplest. My spot is a tiny cabin, a poustinia called Shabbat Shalom, in the middle of a red pine forest at a retreat center called MorningStar Adventures. It has the barest essentials: a little woodstove, peeled log bed and desk, broom, axe, two-burner stove, rocking chair, and an outhouse a few steps away. Through its huge picture window I can watch as the sun rises, crawls across the horizon, and sets. I can sit and just be, wrapped in a blanket, writing in my journal, observing nature close at hand, meditating, and pondering the meaning of my life.
We can look for creative ways to simplify our lives. For me, in the country, getting closer to the earth, means planting a huge garden that supplies half my food needs. There is little necessity to shop in stores. Whatever crops are ready on a given day determine what my menu will be. Canning and freezing allow me to use summer’s bounty all year round. Barter, to my amazement, happens naturally: an apple pie for two bales of straw, a rap on feminist spirituality for 25 quarts of honey, an overnight stay for an old-fashioned cultivator, free admission to a workshop for a lobster trap. For friends’ birthdays and holidays, what could be nicer than homemade gifts from the land: wreaths, raspberry vinegar, dried flower arrangements, sprouting jar sets, chunky salsa?
#2. Go on a solitary journey to bond with the earth and with that which is deepest within us. Several years ago I was getting a message that I should go on a solitary journey. It nagged at me insistently, so I asked my friend Dia, who had gone on many such journeys, to be my guide on a three-day sojourn. We pitched little tents side by side in Findley State Park and set up our camp. Each morning Dia fixed my lunch and blessed me for my journey. I set off hiking the park trails with no agenda other than just to be and to focus on the ordinary. All I was allowed to take, besides water and lunch, were my journal and pen. Scared at first by painfully arthritic knees and a feeling of hopelessness, I gradually relaxed into being at home on the trail and in the universe, being truly thankful for each ordinary miracle of clover and chicory, blackbird and butterfly, and experiencing a deep connectedness with all I met.
Pitching a tent or building a meditation bench beside the garden is another way to spend solitary time bonding with the earth. Sitting quietly and listening to the cheeping and chattering, the booms and whispers, we relax deeply and notice, really notice. We see the holy mysteries alive in soil, mole, and green bean. Gardening in bare feet, without gloves, we are that much closer to the earth. We inhale the wind, the heady odors of basil and tomato, the aroma of freshly-turned earth.
We can always have a solitary journey planned for dreaming, if nothing else, letting the plans occupy a “reserved for solitude” place in our hearts. Isle Royale National Park, a remote island in Lake Superior, is my fantasy place. A habitat for wolves and moose, no cars allowed, it is one of the last wildernesses. I hope to set out one day on its necklace of trails, traveling light—with journal and pen, sleeping bag, tent, and food—and be alone for three days. No doubt it will be the scariest and most revealing thing I have ever done. Even if I don’t get there, it doesn’t matter. Just thinking about it and planning it are scary and revealing enough.
#3. Let a place imprint itself in us. Love it and claim a sanctuary there. My graduate school summers at Bread Loaf School of English in the Green Mountains of Vermont were crowded with difficult course work and waiting tables to pay my tuition. But there was a secret place I went almost every afternoon to rest, read, and meditate. It was a big hollowed-out rock at the far edge of a hilly hayfield, beside an icy mountain stream. I could sit in the cup of the rock, dangle my feet in the stream, and let the sun and the stillness bake their goodness into me. Even now, years later, I can close my eyes and transport myself back there. Such small sanctuaries are waiting to be found.
At Crown Point Ecology Center, a retreat place for me, there is a seat in the kitchen that looks out on the herb garden, bird feeders, vegetable and fruit gardens, and woods beyond. At some time during each retreat I find myself in “my” seat, inhaling tantalizing smells of whatever the gardens have yielded for dinner, and becoming connected with all that is: the sacrament of peach tea, Terra the dog racing madly through the universe, the thought of a worm-composting box in the basement. Everything is saturated with meaning and mystery.At Beaver Run, still another of my retreat spots, I climb and hike to where the tiniest, farthest-out, starkest, simplest hermitage will be built. A home in the wilderness. As I meditate, using “home” as a mantra, a lone bird begins a liquid three-note trill. In my meditation, bird wings and feathers come to form a canopy of blue and purple, delicate, fragile, beautiful. A resting place, a nesting place.
#4. Radically simplify and we will find richness upon richness. Sister Jose Hobday, a woman whose life is centered in simplicity, tells of a trip she and members of her Franciscan order made to Italy. Each traveled with no credit card, no watch, no camera, just a little backpack containing a change of clothing, a toothbrush, and a dollar for each day she would be there. Poor people were first to take them in. “The goodness of people and the providence of God are better than money or credit cards,” she said, “Everywhere we went beautiful things happened to us because we needed other people.”
I read the amazing story of a woman who had planned her trip of a lifetime to Hawaii. Then she heard someone speak on the work of Church World Service in Honduras, and saw a slide of two young girls standing knee-deep in a hog pond, shooing away hogs and pushing away scum in order to get pails of water for their families. When the would-be traveler found that it would cost $1000 to drill a well there, she cancelled her Hawaiian trip and wrote a check for the well. “I think it’s more important for me to stay home and think about people drinking cool, clean water,” she said.
As I began moving into vegetarianism 34 years ago I realized that, rather than feeling deprived, I found my life and taste buds greatly enriched by sampling the cuisines of poor people of the world, most of them vegetarian by necessity. When I had to go on a low-fat diet, I discovered the joy of tasting food that wasn’t drenched in oil or covered with rich sauces. I’m convinced that if I were to become a vegan or a raw-foods devotee, or had to cut out sugar or salt, I would find my world opening up even further.
#5. Pay attention and nature will yield beautiful gifts to nourish and refresh our souls. Cultivate the habit of walking outdoors slowly, meditatively, until something in nature beckons to us.
At a Crown Point guided retreat we were asked to wander until we felt drawn to a place. I approached a huge sunflower at eye level and stood quietly, absorbing what it had to teach me. Soon a honeybee flew in and began to gather nectar. I watched as that bee, then another and another, gathered till filled, then flew away. I thought of Julian of Norwich in her little room attached to the cathedral, with seekers coming one by one for spiritual guidance. I wrote,
To contemplative sunflower
Bees come one by one
On a cool fall day I accompanied a friend to a crafts market at an old English manor house. Rapidly tiring of the dozens of stalls filled with country crafts, I sought out the land’s remote Japanese garden, and was rewarded with two hours of stillness and beauty. Sitting by a little waterfall, I wrote,
Over glistening shards of rock
It’s not hard to pay attention when everything you see is brand-new. On my first and long-awaited trip to Greece, I had a huge disappointment when a snowstorm kept us from visiting Delphi. Instead, we were sent to Epidaurus and Mycenae. Grumbling, I shrank in my bus seat, certain I would have a horrible day. Then, in a mountain pass, in a driving snowstorm, I saw a shepherd and his cream-colored sheep with cocoa-brown faces. Next came almond trees in bloom, orange and lemon trees, twisted and gnarled pistachio trees, and olive trees. We stopped for lunch and were served horta, (fresh, sautéed, dressed spring greens), stuffed tomatoes, and oranges with their leaves still on. A magical day.
As we wander the face of the earth gently, slowly, open to whatever will imprint itself on our souls, the earth will teach us, support us, give us gifts, and speak to us of who we truly are in the deepest part of our being. We, in turn, go on our way, blessing all that we meet, praying for peace, and bringing healing and renewing energy to the earth.
Janis Gingermountain lives in a cabin where woods and field meet, tends her garden, and pays attention to barn swallows and fencerows.