The Crucible of Place
~The Land as a Vessel of Our Intention
And so long as you haven't experienced this:
to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark Earth
My time spent in the woods and wilderness has been my greatest teacher, mentor, spiritual guide and therapist. It's what heals me and where I feel contact with a reality beyond the dullness of superficial reality. I am fortunate enough to live in a relatively wild place that is a habitat of extreme temperatures, rainforest amounts of rain and snow fall, and an array of untamed wonderments that exist within an immense vastness of trees, hills, mountains, rivers, streams and lakes. It is here that I have not only grown to learn the beauty of putting roots deep into the soils of family, friends, community and love of place, but also where I have evolved the focus of my soul's practice as a wandering pilgrim, a colonial exile, and devotee to the divine mystery.
My meditation, prayer and daily ritual involve regular walks, hikes, kayaks and plant gathering excursions that lead me along the trails, fields, ravines and waterways where I live. The land has become the temple of my worship, the point of access where I connect with what some might define as God, Creator, the Great Mystery, what the alchemists regarded as Nature(capital N), and I consider to be the pure substance from which the origins and dimensions of creation exist freed from human and societal coercion and control .
The land is my guru. It is where I meet my soul, my breath, my own existence and clear evidence of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It's where I repeat my mantra. It's where I cry, lay down my burdens and sometimes my head. It where I give thanks and rejoice. I make offerings to the water and the plants and the faery folk. It's the place where my hands feel around for rocks and stones that speak even if it's a language that I have forgotten. It's where I gather shards of old colonial pottery. It's where I sit with my spine pressed against the trunk of an Eastern Hemlock and feel myself expand upward, out, and down simultaneously as my boundaries of separation dissolve. It's where I submerse myself in silence.I have received infinite benefit from the generosity and compassion of the soils and molten, mycelial layers below me that have always risen to collect the beat of my pulse and echo it back again through the winds to my heart, soul and mind each time it has descended into footfall upon the surface. It's where I walk the same trails over and over and over and am always, always in ever greater and greater awe of the beauty, the sweet or spicy or earthy scents of the seasons, the sound of water rumbling along it's well worn trail, the impending cries of the crows, and me, wow, me, I am a part of all of this. We all are.
I recently listened to a wonderful broadcast by the amazing and brilliant dreamworker Toko-pa Turner about the concept of commitment as a vessel of our intention and a method of manifesting our dreams. You can sign up to listen to it HERE. In this video she discusses the old alchemical method of transmutation as it symbolically corresponds to the processes of the human psyche, our dreams and the individuation of the soul. To actualize this process it is necessary to create a vessel of intention that the practitioners of the Old Ways sometimes called a crucible. This is a sealed vessel that contains the base elemental nature of matter where it can be restrained enough to allow the processes of transformation. The crucible is sealed which sets boundaries and limits that exclude any quality that is either unnecessary, distracting, or an impediment to the liberation of the beauty, genius, creativity or gold of the substance.
When we design a crucible of vessel of intention out of discipline, practice and devotion to our life place it becomes a tool to developing our individual relationship with providence and the raw materials of the soul as well as a structure that holds our own hopes, aspirations, and highest potential for alignment with the resilient beauty and healing power of nature's cycles, rhythms and inherent medicine. When we are called to a path of self-actualization, consciousness, and psychic integration we are required to come to terms with many uncomfortable and, sometimes, unfamiliar aspects of ourselves and, usually(unless we were raised in some rare utopian society by highly enlightened beings), some deeply traumatic wounds. A strong, consistent, and focused intention along with repeated and concerted effort becomes a crucible and is capable of containing and facilitating our uninitiated energies much like a mentor assists and holds space for the development of our unique skill. The land, our love for it, our longing for connection to it and our awareness of it's great gifts can be such a mentor.
"This Art is noble, brief, and easy. It requires one thing, which everybody knows. It is in many things, yet it is one thing. It is found everywhere, yet it is most precious. You must fix it and tame it in the fire ; you must make it rise, and again descend."
~From alchemical text; The New Pearl of Great Price: A Treatise Concerning the Treasure and Most Precious Stone of the Philosophers or the Method and Procedure of the Divine Art, FIRST PUBLISHED BY JANUS LACINIUS, THE CALABRIAN, 1577 -1583
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images email@example.com http://wellcomeimages.org An alchemist hunched over his crucible; an assistant reads him a recipe, watched by an onlooker; the alchemist's wife weeps in the dim background, a baby clasped to her breast. Coloured lithograph by Bouvier, 1830, after J. Steen. By: Jan Havicksz Steenafter: BouvierPublished: January 1830
When the land becomes our crucible it becomes the vessel where we may release the unattached roots of our indigenous souls. Souls that may have been uprooted and torn asunder by war, famine, emigration, exile and invasion. The relationship we build within the strong, encompassing embrace of the Earth is what sows our human capacity for attachment and love the more than human, wild landscape within which we dwell. When we extract our human potential to be shaped by place, ecosystem, and bioregion we initiate and invite a contract that grounds us in a reciprocal interchange that confers a rich veins of nutrient dense source energy. The land we love becomes, as mythic author Charles de Lint calls it, the forest of our heart. Contained within this vessel are all the ways in which we stay focused and steadfast in our actions and resolve to be present, aware and constant in our practice that may include the observation of natural patterns, preservation of wild places, and attendance to eco-awareness into own explicit consciousness as well as the consciousness of others that we may have contact and influence.
There are many ancient spiritual traditions that even designed physical structures to mark the boundaries of geographical locations that were perceived to convey a particularly powerful energy and could offer the opportunity for divine connection between humans and the spirit in nature. The Celtic people were one major cultural and ethnic group known for their sacred hills and forts where communities of druids, bards, and practitioners of the holy. This approach did not change after Christianization but was integrated into Celtic Christian doctrine with monastic and ascetic prayer, ritual and practice being strongly attached to place and nature.
"In pre-Christian systems of magical thought, nature was not opposed to humankind or perceived as alien. Nature was all-embracing, permeated with powerful forces, and human beings were included in it. Human interaction with the rest of nature was so complete that people were, in a sense, unable to look at it from outside. They would have felt themselves to be embedded in the power of the cosmos and therefore sought to follow its eternal rhythm." Philip Sheldrake, Living Between Worlds
Later, after Christianization, sacred places were maintained and honored often enclosed by monastic walls and the the stone fences that surround burial grounds. This was derived from a land-based cosmology where the people perceived their gods to be alive and embodied within all matter as opposed to a god that died and was alive in a distant, disembodied location. The landscape and the entirety of the world was inspirited and so the demarcation or sacred places were intended to protect, preserve and define, as would a crucible, sacred ritual sites and spiritual communities. In Sheldrake's book, he describes how the circular enclosures were built to not only replicate the cyclical nature of the cosmos, but to provide a vessel of "privileged space where a particular vision of the world could be lived out." It is within the landscape and upon the land that our perceived version of reality can be expressed and, when we unite that with the variation and differences between physical, geographical formulations, we embark on a apprenticeship with the spirit within matter and the eternal pulse of the world before us When we know the nature of our world, we know the nature of our selves and,when combined, offers up a unique point of reference that has never before and will never again be re-created and accessible to the greater community.
Whether our intentions are spiritual, practical, psychological or ecological, we can live in committed devotion to our life-places. This means even in our modern, global, industrialized world. Wild places certainly emit a quintessential energy that may be more accessible than in an urban area, but even cities have a wildness and natural rhythm that we can attune to. Cities are well worthy of our love, prayer, and focused discipline and may be in need of this more than other bioregions. Our practice and intentions can include an array of activities from meditation, ritual, farming, wildlife conservation and learning or teaching survival skills. The crucible is what holds our consistent effort and liberates our unique gifts so that they may find their own niche in the ecology of the present as well as the legacy that our work here will leave for the future generations.
Sacred Plant Id~Beyond Latin Nomenclature
I have spent more than two decades now studying plants and their medicines. These years have been a great journey that has had many utterly beautiful gifts as well as many intense and growth generating challenges. Every person’s experience and contact with the green nations is unique and for me it is always a sacred activity. By sacred I mean that I have found the beauty, character, qualities, and healing virtues of plants, as well as the whole of nature, to be a dimension of divine creation that, if we are reverent and conscious of, we can become connected with. It has been my experience that with patience, practice, devotion and a heart-centered focus we can begin to perceive and become aware of our innate capacity to understand a meaning and significance of what would normally be invisible or disregarded.
If we were to put this into the words of depth psychology and the visionary psychologist Carl Jung, we would be connecting to the archetypal patterns of nature as they exist in plants, our relationship to nature, and our human interconnection with these patterns. An archetype is the pre-material, ethereal, and eternal essence or blueprint of a form or symbol. I correspond this to the mycelium or genetic substance of that which becomes embodied or temporal. This is information from beyond the hard angles and structures of space and time that is non-linear and mutable, or mythological. The archetype is the true substance that is beneath the surface and the form is the fruiting body. Another way to understand archetypes (and I read or heard this somewhere a long time ago and I don’t remember who to attribute it to) is like this: If you kill one rose blossom you haven’t killed the entirety of ‘Rose’ as a species. The qualities and information necessary to create more roses exist beyond the physical substance of the individual and yet is contained in them all.
There are many ways to study, learn and relate to plants and I don’t believe there is only one way to form a sacred connection and relationship, but I have discovered that there are methods that lend themselves to the possibility of an interface with the eternal world and sacredness of life more than others. Certainly, any activity that is intuitive, instinctual, imaginative and non-analytical that can help us shake off our modern, comfortable habit of categorizing, classifying and intellectualizing information in a reductionist manner, will cultivate an archetypal and mythological perception of the multi-layers of experience. It’s not that I don’t think these processes, including reductionism, don’t have their merits, as well as being necessities and survival skills that we must have at least some proficiency in order to navigate our current reality. It’s just that they’re not necessarily conducive to sacred relations and have become the dominant paradigm at the nearly complete sacrifice of most all other methods and systems.
I, for one, have spent a great deal of time, energy, and brain power learning and remembering the latin names of plants, as well as using keyed guide books with botanical classifications and I will continue to do so. This is important and is a valid and applicable practice that should not be neglected if we hope to carry the wisdom and knowledge of plant medicine into the future. This is not about determining “either/or”, but I have found that when I enter into the woods, wilds and gardens with my guide book and latin names, I engage different cellular grooves or sensory gateways than when I use my intuitive and non-linear skills. I also, I must admit, do find it a bit boring, tedious and, I’d even say, colonial, as if I’m trying to conquest, box up, fence in, and nail down the truth of something wild. I prefer the mysterious and enchanted possibilities of a nature that belongs to itself and that cannot necessarily be named or quantified in human terms.
Below are some ways in which I engage my intuitive and sacred senses to connect and commune with plants in the wild. I don’t discourage anyone from continuing to practice more orthodox methods of plant id(I’m still working on that latin), and I definitely recommend that you positively ID any plant practically to a scientific taxon before ingesting. I do, however, encourage you to cultivate plant relationships that are as deep and vast as all that is ordinarily unseen. This can be done with plants that you have already identified conventionally and want to get know on another dimension. Also, I often use some of the below ideas first and then go back with my plant id book.
- Setting out
Instead of starting with the intention of identifying a plant or plants, set the intention to connect with nature and see if a plant calls to you. There are many ways to know if a plant is calling and we all have different sensory strengths and weaknesses that will create an impulse within us. Sometimes it is the beauty of a certain flower, the scent, or the color. Sometimes it’s the placement, like a plant that comes up through a sidewalk crack right where we stop to rest for a moment. Or a plant that shows up in our garden that we didn’t plant and has never been there before. It may be a plant that gives us a feeling of peace or passion or inspiration or love. It may be that we don’t know why but we’re really attracted to it.
- Place and community
Notice where does this plant grow? A dark forest, a field, a city park, suburban backyard? Near people? What other plants grow around it? A plants community is part of its story and the context that it chooses to live within.
- Introduce yourself and make an offering
You wouldn’t walk up to another human without offering some form of greeting, and although some would say that this is anthropomorphizing, as a human, I don’t know how else we should be expected to orient ourselves. Many indigenous traditions around the world had words and greetings with which to introduce themselves to plants and other non-human beings. Along with saying “hello”, making a formal offering enacts a relationship of reciprocity and humility. Offerings can be anything from a piece of your own hair, your breath, some cornmeal, tobacco, sea shells, stones, etc. Please keep to natural and non-toxic materials.
An offering can include a prayer, a song, a dance or any other form of self-expression. Along with your prayer you can offer smoke from incense or a plant bundle. If you have a prayer style or tradition you follow make an offering from that practice. It is my recommendation that you do not use a prayer, language or blessing practice from a culture to which you have not been enculturated into. This is considered cultural appropriation and our American First People are offended by this. It is taking something that does not belong to you and it denies your own inheritance and ancestry while also offending your own lineage and history. This is an entire topic that is beyond our scope here, and my best advice is to be authentic and act from the heart of who you are no matter how you choose to express yourself. Your intention is the most important element of prayer.
- Create a ritual
Initiate your own practice or sacred routine that you perform while studying and identifying a new plant. This can include a saying a prayer or chant, setting up a small alter, placing a talisman, small statue or figurine, or gem such a quartz crystal near the plant while you are sitting with it. Burning a plant bundle or invoking a particular guide or ancestral ally.
- Engage the senses
What does the plant feel like? Slippery, soft, fuzzy, sharp, stingy(nettles comes to mind)? What does it look like? A woman, a man, a sufi dancer, a type of bird, a whirlwind, etc? What does it sound like when the wind blows through it or when you brush by it? What, if any, emotions do you experience when you sit with it or look at it?
***For more on engaging the senses read: The Earth Path, by Starhawk and Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Stephen Buhner
- Interpret the leaves and flowers
Do the leaves or flowers form a symbol such as a spiral, a cross, curves and circles? Do the flowers point to the four directions? Do they have 5 points like stars? What do these symbols represent? Can you find correspondences to symbolic languages such as runes or ogham? Ogham itself is the ancient language of the Celtic Nations that is based on symbolic markings that represent trees.
Set the intention to get to know the plant and allow your mind to wander and dream. If images or stories come up either draw them or write them down.
- Night dream
Go to sleep with an image or a piece of the plant that you are working with and set the intention of learning more about it. Keep a pen and notebook near your bed to write down any dreams.
For great info on dreams and dreaming go to: toko-pa.com
- Flow of consciousness
Sit with the plant and write a flow of thoughts. Just let them go and see what comes up.
- Make up a story
Write a new myth or formulate a character around the plant. What type of personality would he/she have? Where would his/her kingdom be?
- Make up a name
This is one of my favorite ways to remember and connect with local plants and it links us to a time when we lived more rooted in our bioregions and communities. Common names define a plant based on many variable including how it has emerged locally and how the local people perceive it. A common name acknowledges the spectrum of appearances that a plant can embody as well as the way it reflects the people in its community.
Try these and come up with your own ways to meet, connect, know and honor our great plant earth allies. We are blessed in our times to have so many roads to understanding our world. We have all that we have inherited from the past ways of direct observation, intuition, instinct and the honing of our natural senses to the greatest of technological innovations that include plant ID guide books and even cell phone apps. Whatever you choose can be made sacred by applying conscious awareness and reverence for all the ways with which we can know our world.
Conversation With A Bog in Ireland:
First of all, I had no idea that I was walking on a bog in the beginning. We had just arrived in Ireland and I was anxious to get out on the land.
It just looked like a field any normal field in central New York State where I live. We had asked a local server at the pub why the “holy well” shown on the map seemed to be on private property and how did others access it.
His answer, “Fences are for keeping the sheep in, not people out.” So we climbed through and through and through.
What is this place, I asked?
My feet sink in and there is a silence that I’ve never heard before. A silence that is so still. Like the still point of balance. Like the worlds, under, above and between, were in perfect soundless harmony.
And the water, ohhhh, the water. I am walking on water. Aren’t I?
Then an awareness, a sudden sense occurred. It was a realization that I had slipped or, it would be better said, sunken, into the watery soul of an Irish bog.
Simultaneously, and even more profoundly, I was struck by the loss of my constant and lifelong sense of homesickness. It had been such a chronic companion that I had actually forgotten that I even had it until this moment. It was gone. I was no longer homesick. After traveling 24 hours by car and plane and car again, over the Atlantic ocean, to a place I had never been before but had only heard about and where I had been for just one day and now, having wandered into what looked like a normal pasture that was really just a green ocean like I had never experienced before full of strange flowers and smells that were owned by people that, apparently, were ok with strangers walking on their property to find hidden sacred places and my heart, soul, and sopping wet socks, knew I was home.
Where did my homesickness go?
It left when you returned.
What is that silence?
It’s the sound of the wind standing still.
I think it was what Irish poet William Butler Yeats described as “that condition of quiet”.
“Even to-day our country people speak with the dead and with some who perhaps have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision. We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life….” ~from The Celtic Twilight
Will I fall through?
You already have. Why are you here?
I’ve come for my ancestors. Where are they? I’ve come because I have been orphaned and have no homeland. I’ve come because I was born in America but my mother told me that I’m Irish and Italian and in elementary school we were assigned a class project where we all had to research where we were descended from and none of us could say America. We were all from somewhere else. Ireland, Italy, Poland, Africa… Like orphans, homeless, a motherland we only imagined and grandparents with accents that they tried to hide and stories they didn’t tell. No stories. No ancestors. No sacred burial grounds. In Ireland the signs said "burial ground" instead of cemetery. The word "cemetery", so clinical, so dead.
I’ve come because there is a gaping hole in the tapestry of who I am. A place where the threads were dropped or cut, left, unwoven.
Your people left here because they were dying.
Wouldn’t dying have been better? Dying here. Dying to this place, dying to our ancestors, our clans, our cheiftans, our kings, our holy mothers, the stones, this mist, the rain, this softness beneath my feet. What life do we have without the water to shape and tender our roots?
You have a lineage. Yes, unwoven so.
And the grass, my cousin was with me and she noticed, the grass was like our hair. Coarse, thick, unruly. We laid down in it.
I can’t stay here.
Return is not the same as going back. When you return home you awaken a place in your heart that exists now. Feed it. Tapestries aren’t made from sewing back and forth over the same stitches. Make new ones.
Make a home for exiles.
And the well. We found the holy well finally. It took all day although we had passed right by it when we first set out. It was not a grand well but a hidden pool where the water rushed out and along the surface. As did we.
“You did not come into this world, you came out of it.
You are not a stranger here.”