I swear I live at the heart of the world, in the only break in the Cascades: the Columbia River Gorge. When I go grocery shopping, I can often see Mount Hood to the south and Mount Adams to the north. I follow wildflowers into the wilds at the heart of the world in the spring and summer and salmon in the fall. In winter, I curl into my own cave, like my ancestors the bear. At all times I listen for Bigfoot and Mountain Lion, Coyote and Hummingbird. I would follow them anywhere.
Yet this last winter and spring were difficult. Winter seemed to last forever: maybe because I didn't feel well, maybe because the rain went on and on and various members of my family weren't doing well. Maybe it was because I finished up a year-long graduate program in Seattle and I wasn't certain whether it had been the right decision to spend the money to go back to school.
Maybe it was because I wasn't writing much, or at least not as much as I wanted to. I had lost my mo and my jo.
Had lost it some time ago but I had kept going.
What else can you do?
I had had too many losses over the last few years, too many dead friends; my mother had died, and my family members often seemed on the verge of one tragedy or another--along with the rest of the world.
Since I was a child, I felt it was my duty to save the world. Whether the world asked or not. But my Wonder Woman skills had always been lacking, if one looked at the results: The world was tumbling, crumbling, bumbling.
Every day I watched the news and wondered if we were going to survive.
I had to change something, at least change something about me.
I stopped paying attention to most media, and I started walking. First I began walking labyrinths: one here in Skamania, one at Still Meadow, and mostly, the one in Portland at the Grotto. Set amongst tall Douglas Firs, this labyrinth felt like a doorway between here and there. I felt the presence of the invisibles more keenly there than I usually did. I heard "all the answers are in the woods."
I went to the Douglas fir woods that encircle and grow up a sacred mountain near my home. I asked permission of all the wild things of that place to climb and visit the Witch of the Mountain.
I should describe this place to you. How can I? The wild is often indescribable. It's not so much what a place looks like but how you feel there. I always felt as though I was on the edge of something in this place I'll call Vision Mountain. Literally I was on the edge. Most of the trail is on the edge as it follows the shape of the small basalt mountain.
In the spring, deer's head orchids light up the dark sloping mountainsides like fuchsia-colored lightning bugs. We often see yellow wood violets and trilliums. I feel the presence of elk on this mountain, although I don't know if any animals live in this place.
I know when I hike this trail I could get hurt. And I have been. I've fallen a couple of times when I've been hiking alone on this trail. It's always the same: I'm walking forward and I look to my left or right, and then my feet slip out from under me. Fortunately I've been able to pick myself up and limp back down the trail. If I had gone over the edge, it would have been a different story.
What do I feel on this mountain?
I have spent a lifetime denying what I feel, especially when I am in nature. I feel the presence of life in the wild, life that I can see and life I cannot see.
We're not supposed to talk about such things. If we do, we're labeled crazy, illogical, or New Age. I do not want to have any of those labels affixed to me.
Yet I am not a carton of milk in the dairy section wishing to be a candy bar on the end aisle. Or something like that.
I am not a commodity.
What does it matter what someone labels me?
I talk to trees. I always have. I talk to stones. I always have.
This isn't something new for me. No one taught me to do this. It came naturally.
So what do I feel walking up Vision Mountain?
I feel the presence of the divine, of the invisible, the sacred, the wild, the weird.
Sometimes it takes my breath away. Sometimes it gives me breath.
I feel deeply alive.
And so this day I walked up Vision Mountain. I gasped for breath and walked half-bent, but I made it to the top without using my inhaler, which was my intention. Near the top Mario and I heard sticks breaking, and we felt certain a bear was warning us she was near. I felt bear--in my bones and breath, I felt bear all around me. Then a woman emerged from the brush and the woods. She smiled and passed by us, silently, a bear in human clothes. A shapeshifter.
A few minutes later, a young man hurried down the trail. He stopped to say hello. He told us how sacred he felt this mountain was. He was new to this, he said, talking about his spiritual awakening. But he believed in the power and beauty of nature. He said his wife, who had gone down ahead of him, was the true healer in the family. They were like one person they were so much alike, he said. He wanted to be a writer, but he wasn't sure if that was the right path.
I didn't know if I had ever heard anyone tell me so much about themselves in such a short period of time, especially not at the top of a windy mountain. The trees creaked above us as they moved in the wind. Seven hundred feet below, the river flowed silently.
He said he wasn't certain why he was telling us all this.
I encouraged him to go ahead with his writing. He thanked me and started down the mountain again. Then I asked, "Is your totem bear by any chance? I've felt bear all around up here."
He shook his head. "No, but it is my wife's."
The bear woman we had seen.
Mario and I continued to the top. I left a couple stones on one of the ancient squat pine trees that grew, twisted, on the edge of the talus fields. I left other stones under another tree. (I intended to retrieve them at another date.)
At the top of the talus fields, I called to the Witch of the Mountain and received my blessing. The mountains all around me exhaled.
I made an offering to the place, and then we descended.
A few days later, I walked up the mountain again with my friends Marie and Carly. Every year we tried to make a pilgrimage up this mountain. We began this year by making an offering to the poison oak: We promised we meant no harm to anything on the mountain, and up we went.
I had known both of these women for years. I met one of them when I took a Faery Doctor workshop with Tom Cowan, the summer my friend Linda was dying. Linda had told me I had to learn all the plants now that she was leaving; that had been one of her skills. That workshop had given me permission (of a sort) to talk to the plants again: to the plants, the faeries, the wind, the rain, the clouds. I had already been doing it, but to know there had been an ancient tradition of Faery Doctors who behaved just like me was liberating. That was where I met Marie. Later I met Carly in a Chöd workshop Marie taught.
I could talk about anything with these two women. Nothing was off-limits. Nothing was too weird or too personal. By profession one was a librarian and the other was an anthropology professor. They were both healers and teachers, both on a wild and wooly adventure through life, looking for love and truth, consciousness and ecstasy. I never felt like I was too much for them, or too little. They allowed me to be my true self.
I never worried that I would offend them. I could say absolutely anything to them. We could disagree with one another, or agree with one another.
I could be myself.
What a relief.
As we traveled up the mountain, we looked at the undersides of ferns to see their spores. We listened to the creaking of the Douglas Firs as a breeze wound through them. I pointed out shiny Oregon grape, the three-leaved trilliums now bereft of flowers, and indian pipe looking incongruous and ghostly white pushing up through the forest humus. We stepped carefully over the sharp stones of three talus fields. We stopped to feel the sun on our faces and remember that Carly had found a green frog on the largest talus field the year before.
At the top of the mountain that day, I retrieved the stones I had put on the old tree, and I gave one each to my friends. Now they could carry the mountain around with them. Then I got the other stones and put them in a pouch for myself.
We ate and sat on the top of the talus field on the north and east side of the mountain. The sky was blue and clear. The air was remarkably still.
Then I stood and began to sing. I just opened my mouth and sang to the spirits of the mountain, to the mountain, to the land all around, a voiceless song, loud and powerful, sounding like it was rising up from the ground below us.
As I sang, the wind began to blow. It got cold and began to rain.
"I didn't know that was a storm song!" I said.
We laughed and scrambled up, to get off the mountaintop.
"If I called in the winds," I said, "let's see if we can calm them."
So Carly and I began to sing to the tune of Brahms' Lullaby. "Lullaby and good night, lalala, please calm, let us get off the mountain without getting drenched and frozen..."
We sang this as the trees groaned from the wind. We sang as we walked.
A hundred feet later, the wind turned into a breeze. The rain stopped. We easily climbed down the mountain.
The next week, the three of us went to Falling Creek.
How many times had I walked this trail? The first time I had come here, to this trail in the Gifford-Pinchot, I hadn't been able to go beyond the bridge, just a few minutes from the trailhead. Later I went a little further, and then a little further. For the first year or more, I felt like I was going to die each and every time I was on the trail. Maybe I did. Maybe I died to my old self. Shapeshifted into a new self.
I had walked this trail on hot summer days. Walked this trail when it was covered in snow. Walked this trail as it rained. As it snowed. Walked this trail listening to the water, the possibilities, the birds, my heart beat.
Every thing seemed possible on this trail.
This day we walked and talked. Don't remember what we said to one another. Reached the falls. Watched the water pounding the pool below it before it turns into the creek. I remembered last year the three of us climbed down to be nearer to the pool, letting the spray from the falls cool our faces as the sun beat down on us. We were like three Angelica plants, drinking in everything.
On the way back, we stepped off the main trail and went down to the river. We climbed over huge rocks and sat near the water where it somersaulted over a short stack of rocks, making rapids. We sat sunning ourselves on these rocks, legs curled up beneath us as though we were three mermaids listening for messages from the churning water.
And we were.
Listening for messages.
And we were three mermaids.
The water's edge is an in-between place. Sitting at this edge, next to the river and the land I loved, next to my good friends, I felt something beneath the water. Felt the siren energy. Watched the bubbles--whole, tiny, silver--swimming in the cold green water before breaking the surface, merging with the waves. I put my bare feet into this mountain stream and felt myself shifting.
It would be so easy to fall into this water.
To become this water.
To become part of the mer.
How can I describe this place to you? How did I feel in this place?
Like a siren.
Anything was possible.
A few days later, I drove Carly and Marie to Mount Saint Helens--to Loo Wit. We drove slowly, through the place where I live, through the Gifford Pinchot forest. I told them this back way was an in-between place. This whole forest. We were driving toward charnel grounds, and it was all sacred.
I didn't need to tell them any of this. They knew.
I said Sasquatch-like creatures lived in Spirit Lake and would drag them down if they got too close.
The mountain came into view soon, her gray sides reminding us she was a crone, given to explosions.
Marie wanted to go down one of the dirt logging roads.
"No," I said.
"Because people get lost and die going down those roads."
"But they're logging roads," she said. "They must be all right."
"No," I said. "I've been down some. It's very easy to get lost."
"That's only in the winter," she said.
"I'm telling you," I said, "it's just too dangerous."
We drove down the windy road. Up and down. The mountain got closer and closer.
They saw the blow down: Trees stripped of all their needles and branches, laid out on the hillsides, as though they were gray birthday candles some giant had blown out and blown down.
Then we were at Windy Ridge.
I had forgotten how windy it was here, so I hadn't brought a hat or scarf. Below was Spirit Lake, still as a mirror, choked with logs at one end. I imagined a watery Sasquatch reaching up and taking me to the world beneath. Would it be like this world?
I loved this world.
Shhh, this place is a cathedral.
Marie pointed to a gated road going toward the mountain. We walked around the gate and headed down the road. The wind was momentarily blocked. We gazed east. Hundreds, thousands, a million plus acres of forest stretched out before us.
We passed some kind of tiny research station. A tall young beautiful man was adjusting solar panels. Carly talked to him about what he was doing. He was a scientist measuring the movement of the earth. Or something. I wasn't listening. He wore a dark blue tank top and jeans. I remember that. The three of us walked to a spot above him to get a closer look at a ridge west of us where elk or deer or mountain goats watched us.
Then we kept walking.
When we were out of earshot of the tender of the solar panels, I said, "In my day, scientists did not look like that."
We laughed and kept walking toward the Crone.
When the mountain blew in May 1980, I was completing my graduate degree at Eastern Michigan University. I found ash on my car. At least that was what we thought it was.
A month or so later, my entire life changed. I went to a writing workshop at Michigan State University and met Mario Milosevic who became my husband exactly one year later.
I always remembered that time in my life whenever I visited Loo Wit.
Now the three of us turned a corner as we continued walking toward the mountain; the wind nearly knocked me over.
I was miserable in the wind. I couldn't be out in the wind unless my ears are completely protected. Even as an adult, I had been prone to ear infections. Several years earlier I went to an outdoor wedding without cotton in my ears. A few days later, my eardrum burst. I was not eager to repeat that experience.
Still I wanted to keep walking toward the mountain. We were on the mountain already and yet we had the sense of walking toward her. We picked up big pieces of pumice on the way: They were as light as air. We hoisted them and then dropped them back to the ground.
The road curved. Ash all around us. Felt like I could reach out and touch the top of the mountain.
The sun was beginning to descend. We had to get out of the Giff before night. I didn't want to drive in the dark on these narrow windy roads. We stopped walking, gazed at the mountain, and decided to head back. Just then we looked down at our feet. Tiny green wild strawberry plants were growing up from the gray dirt/ash. We squatted. The plants had tiny strawberries on them. Hunched over, the three of us plucked the tiny red strawberries, dusty with volcano breath, and we ate them.
I tasted fire.
I tasted wild.
I tasted my heart.
As we drove away from the mountain, I suddenly heard the call of the wild, heard the hills or the mountains or the trees, and I turned down a logging road. We got out and walked up an ashy hillside. Our feet sank in the ash as we walked slowly, reverently. We each reached down into the ash and pulled up a downed gray branch of some tree disappeared in the blast. Each branch--each stick--was its own piece of art, its own testimony to the power of the earth, its own record of the eruption and all that had happened since. Death and life, life and death.
Each were the color of the mountain.
Two became my staffs. I stood on the mountainside holding the bones of long dead trees, and I began to sing. I opened my mouth and the song of the mountain came out. The song of the hillsides. The wind. The trees. All the animals that had died. And survived. The song of all that had been and would be. I felt it pour out of me as though it were something separate and yet a part of my soul. It was a healing song. A memorial song. A song in exchange for the gift of the staffs. For the walking, praying, dancing, singing sticks.
My knees buckled as I sang. I could barely stand. The world stopped and listened.
Then the song was over. I opened my eyes and saw my friends.
The branches were nearly longer than the car, but we got them all in. One scratched me and drew blood. It was only fitting. Then we drove home.
The next week, I met my friends at Edgefield in Troutdale and I drove them into the gorge to a trail Mario and I had discovered a week earlier. We hadn't had time to hike it completely then, but very few people had been on the trail, so I decided it would be a good one for the three of us.
We walked up a steep paved path. That soon gave way to a dirt trail leading up through the woods. On either side of us were stands of Devil's Club. We stopped and gazed at them.
Devil's Club always feels sentient to me. Of course, most plants feel sentient to me. But something about Devil's Club plants seems preternatural, otherworldly, with a definite mind and feelings, thoughts and abilities. Warrior plants, they seem to beckon. As I get close, I see the spines that cover the stems and the undersides of the huge leaves. Yet they feel protective. As if their purpose is to protect, not to keep away.
At least not to keep me away.
When Mario and I had hiked this trail the week before, I had started to cry when I saw all the Devil's Club. I had never seen so much in one place. Something about them seemed so majestic and improbable. The sun shined through their leaves, so that they seem almost florescent green. And in this forest, they seemed to be protected: No one could harvest them here.
The three of us kept walking through the prickly stand, up and over the first falls that we couldn't see from this vantage point, and then south again. We came to three old Doug fir trees across path. Three sisters: Me, Carly, and Marie. We immediately picked out our trees and went to stand by them.
"This is the threshold," I said, "and entrance. Let's each put a hand on our tree and walk through at the same time."
And this we did.
We walked. The trail took us through a magnificent old forest, tangled and green, like something out of a faery land. We sat on a log across a stream for a long while, and then we walked some more. We stopped at every strange and wild place. Looked up at trees that threatened to fall. Looked up at half empty trees. Walked across wooden bridges. Wondered at names of this and that plant.
These women understood and shared my awe at every curve in the trail.
And then we were at the two-tiered falls. I gasped at the sight of it, the sound, the moisture from it on the hot day. I had to get closer to the falls. Had to get to that in-between place behind the falls. The three of us braved the slippery rocks and went behind the falls. The water sprayed up. I stared at the falling water and saw a being dancing in the water. I pointed it out to my friends. We could all see it.
It was as though a ghostly dancer was caught in the falls--no, as if the falling water was a curtain and a part of the being all at the same time, a being who rose up from where the water hit the pool beneath it, and then moved down again, the shape changing but always looking as though it was something alive, a waterfall creature dancing, creating beauty whether there was a human audience or not. And then suddenly, occasionally, mist would shoot out of the waterfall and the being was gone for a moment, only to return again an instant later, with a different dance this time. It was unmistakable, eerie, and awesome.
I got closer to the waterfall. I could only hear the sound of the falls. Saw only the being in the falls.
It didn't matter that someone somewhere could explain why we could see what looked like a being in the waterfall. I didn't care. It existed, whatever the reason was. Just as the water existed. Just as I existed.
I began to sing to the waterfall spirit. Or maybe Carly started. In any case, the three of us stood under the waterfall singing.
We were living at the heart of the world. Singing at the heart of the world.
Wherever there's water, healing follows.
I knew this.
I closed my eyes and asked for a healing.
Something changed in the in-between place where I stood behind the falls just then. The wind shifted. The place shifted.
Or I shifted as the being shifted. The water slapped me. I breathed in mist. I gasped. I laughed. I could barely stand still.
Later Carly and Marie told me it looked as though I had merged with the waterfall spirit.
Still later, the three of us walked and walked and walked. Got lost, in a way. Found our way back. Walked some more.
Drove back to Edgefield and had dinner. We talked about a million things. About love. They asked me to tell the story of how Mario and I met. Marie had heard the story before, but she wanted Carly to hear it.
Shortly before Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, or maybe after, I wrote a story about a witchy woman. In the story, she had to accept her power and her destiny. She also met and fell in love with a beautiful and kind young man who was not like other men. It wasn't much of a story, but the young man had been interesting. Soon after writing the story, I attended a writing workshop at Michigan State where I met Mario. He reminded me of the gentle man in the story. I used to joke that I had written him into existence. But really, I suppose the story had prepared me to accept someone like Mario into my life. Someone wonderful who was not like any other man I had known.
The three of us talked of other things in the Black Rabbit restaurant, and then we went our separate ways. I returned to the gorge, and they headed toward Portland.
We went on other hikes, too. And I walked with Mario as well.
As the weeks went by, I began to write again. Short pieces about Butch. Five hundred words a day.
And I started thinking about what I wanted to do with the new schoolin' I had just completed. People kept asking me, "Now what?" And I hadn't had an answer. A few months earlier, one of my sisters had accused me of lecturing her when she called me about a problem she had. I felt bad about that for a while. Then I remembered in permaculture, we turn the problem into part of the solution.
People sometimes thought I was lecturing them. Maybe I seemed like a know-it-all, too. Instead of trying to change that about me, how could I use those qualities? My friends and acquaintances often asked me how they could be greener, how they could shop for healthy food, how they could conserve energy. I knew the answers to those questions most of the time. When they asked me questions I couldn't immediately answer, I knew how to find out.
Wasn't that what a consultant did?
Maybe that was part of what I would do--along with my writing--work as a kind of green researcher and consultant for people and businesses in my community.
I also began making tentative steps to find more connections in my community. One came to me out of the blue, out of the big sacred blue. I went over to my neighbor's house to ask him to cut some cherry wood into coin pieces for a rune set. The cherry was too rotten so we decided not to do it, but a couple hours later a woman came over to my house carrying a bag of deer antlers.
"Maybe you could use these," she said.
It turned out she was the new wife of my next door neighbor. (He's really two doors down and I don't see him often.) I had seen her before but she looked like his former wife, so I hadn't realized they were two different people!
She was one quarter Cherokee, and she had had a Native American shop for many years. Now she was a "devoted" Christian and she had to get rid of her beads, gems, and animals skins. Everyone in her church would think she was going to hell if they knew.
"Do you think you're going to hell?" I asked.
"No," she said. "I figure the creator made it all, but I can't share any of this with anyone I know."
"You can share it with me," I said, "as long as you don't care that I'm not Christian."
We kept trying to meet again, but we kept missing one another. One day I left a copy of Mercy, Unbound on her steps.
Eventually we found each other again and she showed me her gems and feathers, her beads and animals.
And so I had a new friend down the street from me. One day she knocked on my door and said, "Hold out your hand." Which I did. She put a bear claw on my palm.
I gave her a copy of Church of the Old Mermaids. She is reading it now. Every time she mentions the book, she smiles. "I love that you gave her visions," she told me.
That made me smile, too.
I live in a place where people are notorious for staying to themselves and/or only staying with their tightly knit group of people. I had tried many ways over the years to connect with people here in a meaningful way. I had rarely been successful. I didn't especially want to lead anything new, but I definitely wanted to be a part of my community.
Unfortunately, lately, everything that was interesting to me here was taking place at a new community center: a new TOXIC community center that was still outgassing more than a year after it opened. Since I couldn't participate there, I decided to hold meetings and salons and programs in a place that was safe for everyone: our library.
So I sent out a notice about starting a permaculture group. I said I wanted us to figure out ways to make our community sustainable and resilient during good times and tough times. Our country was changing and had been changing for the worse for the last decade or more. The politicians were eating away at our liberties and social programs. We were on our own, or would be soon, it seemed. How could we fend for ourselves and be thrivalists instead of survivalists? I wanted to have that discussion.
We only got eight people at the first meeting. Afterward, I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with it. I had no interest in starting something once again that was not going to be a collaboration. I was tired of talking to the same three people over and over, and I'm certain they were tired of talking to me,
But one of the people who came to the meeting was someone I didn't know, and he had a small organic farm in the next town over. He told us he had some extra veggies he couldn't use, so I arranged for a group of us to go to his place the next day and u-pick. I also got a dozen eggs from him, gathered from his free-range chickens who hadn't ever eaten corn.
From one meeting, I had made one valuable connection.
I felt like we needed these kinds of connections all through our community. If things went wrong, as they seemed to be going, we needed to know who was growing what in our community. We needed to know who had what skills.
I decided to send out another email asking people if they were interested in a permaculture group. I asked them to help pick a name. I got nearly fifty responses. This was ten times the response I usually got about anything! It seemed I had struck a nerve: People here were ready to take action to create the kind of community they wanted to live in.
We'll see what happens next.
Last week, I went to u-pick at the organic farm again. I talked with the gentleman who owned the place and told him I was taking two of my friends out hiking to one of the falls nearby. He nodded and said, "I built that deck out by the falls."
I love these kinds of connections.
A couple of days later, I took Carly and Marie out to Panther Creek. When we drove past the organic farm, I told them to remember that place and the man who owned the land. I would tell them why later.
At Panther Creek, we walked through old growth Douglas firs. We looked for rocks along the creek and tried to remember how to skip stones. (None of us was able to skip a single stone.) At one place along the river, dragonflies flew back and forth between us and the other bank, doing somersaults as they munched on bugs or showed off for us.
The three of us ate eggs I had gotten from the organic farm.
Then I took them to the falls. We all found sticks along the road first, to steady ourselves on the trail. It could be a dangerous trip down.
We dipped into the woods, off the road, no sign to tell us the way. It was semi-dark inside these woods. No tangled green to lighten it. It was all red and black-gray--and white water.
It was almost as though we were inside a giant forest house.
The feel of it. Enclosed. Enveloped.
Trees hung over the rushing water, the rushing water that would become Panther Creek where we had been miles downstream. White water everywhere.
We walked to the deck, the one the farmer had made, and I told Carly and Marie. The man whose eggs we ate, the man whose house we drove by, he built this deck.
A young man and woman stood on the deck next to us making out. I hoped they wouldn't have sex next to us as the three of us watched the creek fall, fall, fall into the ravine beneath us; another part of the creek flowed down a rock face to merge with the creek below. Eventually the couple left, and the three of us were left alone with all the wooded flora and fauna.
We hiked down to the edge of the stream and sat next to the trees, above the rushing water.
Deep peace, deep peace, deep peace.
Eventually, we left the water's edge and walked up the trail: wild women walking.
As we passed one tree, I stopped. It looked as though a bear had been trying to gnaw through the bark to get to the tasty cambia beneath. Carly marveled that I could spot things like that in the woods. I just smiled.
Perhaps I was beginning to get my mojo back.
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