An Early Spring Medicine Walk

The day before Spring officially arrived, I took a walk with a dear friend. She and I have evolved a soft and fluid pattern of getting together as our respective cultures’ holy days are either waxing or waning. In the interim, especially this past year, we occasionally text or fob an email back and forth or send each other a “love note” in the mail. We’ve held the intention to meet for a walk these past many months of needing to maintain a safe, social distance and so it was that a few weeks ago she sent a message offering a couple of afternoons. I suggested we pencil in both, weather permitting, knowing how much can change on a dime. With the long-range forecast looking good for Friday, she suggested we meet at Bunchberry Meadows, a nature conservancy west of the city.

snow white paths and aspens

I vaguely recalled having heard of it somewhere, some time ago, so googled and printed off directions. Packed my Deuter daypack with requisite trail mix and water; rain jacket, gloves and toque; first aid kit and camera. Laced on my hiking boots. Grabbed my newly whittled willow walking stick – a gift from the woman who carves in our neighborhood woods. Fuelled up the car – still only a once-a-month ritual – and set out. Zigged once when I should have zagged, but still arrived minutes before my friend coming from a morning of meetings. Hellos said, virtual hugs exchanged on the breeze and we set off.

Being familiar with the trails as she comes out at the turn of every season, she pointed the way and said we’d be traversing through several distinct areas of old growth tamarack, white spruce, jack pine, and willow. The past week of more than seasonal warm and sunny weather meant we walked through large snowless expanses of meadow – exposing last year’s dried golden grasses – and forest mottled with white patches of snow. Paths varied in their coverage: soft crystalline snow made for easy gripping; fallen leaf and dropped needles padding evoked summer mountain treks in scent and feel; and ice sheened with melt became the most treacherous, where boot spikes, had I stopped to take them out of my pack, would have been a wise addition.

Bunchberry Meadows

Coming to a long stripped log, perched as a bench and glossed to a smooth sheen by countless others who have taken rest on it, I suggested we sit to soak up the sun shining on our faces, while watching the hawk silently float above the meadow fringed with woods. There we soaked, too, in quiet conversation, punctuated by easy, companionable silences.

Encountering another woman on the trail, we clarified our location and route back to the parking lot, completed the circuit down a steep snow and ice covered trail, and through the shadowy filigree file of tamarack, sun lighting the end of the way into the berry meadow, now dotted with dried umber yarrow heads.

Up and through a couple more times, the sun now lower in the sky, but still exceptionally warm for three weeks into March day, and we arrived back at our cars to each make the trek home for dinner.

At the outset, I hadn’t thought of this walk being or bringing medicine. It was simply to be a lovely outing with a lovely friend. But at its conclusion, during the freeway drive home where I needed to shift into another way of navigating trails, and several times since, especially now as I’m writing, in the early hours of a pre-dawn Sunday morning, its soothing effects linger.

I’ve missed walking in Nature’s nature. Sure, Annie and I make our way in our suburban bits of natural landscape, but lately I’ve found myself growing irritated with the number of people on the paths of what are really, simply, barely hidden golf fairways and greens. The first I’m putting to words – this nuanced realization that the more we move out of winter into the inevitable golf season, whatever medicine I’d felt on those paths – a medicine that restored and rebalanced me beyond the basic benefits of being out in the fresh air and elements, moving – is now melting away like the snow, exposing its actual, man-made nature.

And as I think about it further in the last week or so, as a less than conscious response, I’ve found myself drawn back to walking on the path in the little wood lot where we’ve occasionally encountered our friend the stick whittler. Just to be a bit closer on the land…to get a bit closer to Nature’s nature…the healing kind.

Much love and kindest regards, dear friends, as we step into spring, or autumn for my southern hemisphere readers.

my neighborhood woodlot in autumn

Holy Alchemy

“Praying. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;
just pay attention, then patch a few words together
and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

Mary Oliver

I pray. Not so often in that formal, elaborate, church going way. But when I think of Anne Lamott’s two best prayers, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I’m devout.

Too, when I sit during my favourite time of day, in the still and quiet morning, before sunrise – which comes earlier now – and look out onto the trees, now still full of leaves, but soon, soon, bare limbed and yes, snow covered. Or when I’m beside Annie on “her” sofa, my hand resting on her head, her front paw resting on my arm. Those count too, I think.

I’ve written about more consciously living my life as prayer since the pandemic, one of its gifts. Though when I posted about getting lost during my medicine walk, how I’d managed to manifest into the 3D physical, my interior lostness, I now admit to having felt shy to say that I’d prayed as I’d been taught, it being part of the preparation for a medicine walk and fasting quest. To offer thanks, to ask for guidance and protection at the threshold between one’s urban, more mundane life and the wilder, nature bound, sacred space beyond. Anne Lamott’s “thank you, help me” kind of prayer. And I chanted on the trail for hundreds of steps, the Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum,” to keep myself company, and let anyone out there, hidden in the woods, know I was around. My vocal version of a bear bell.

Truth be told, I absolutely believe those prayers helped me get found, safe and sound. Helped me avoid any wildlife encounters beyond bird song, dragonflies, and scat. Like when I realized I’d lost the diamond stud earring, a cherished gift from my husband, and prayed for its return. Three days later, after retracing all my steps and stops, I took a chance to revisit the gym where I’d played pickleball. Earlier when I’d called to ask if it had been found, I’d been told they’d taken down the nets, swept the floors, and installed equipment and inflatables for children coming to play during spring break, but I persisted. Walking carefully, head bent, l traced the room’s periphery, breaking the rule to cross beyond the “stay away” sign to where the inflatable was plugged in. There it was, on the floor, inches away from the socket. How it had not been spotted by anyone plugging in and pulling out that cord for several days, was my answered prayer. Admittedly trivial in the scheme of life, with its tragedy, so much going seemingly from bad to worse every day, especially this year, but for me a vivid, visceral reminder.

When I somewhat sheepishly shared my lost on the Lost Lake trail story with my friends who had served as my quest guides last year, they said that what shone through was my recognition of prayer and its power. That yes, I had been held safe by an ancient benevolent wisdom found in nature. That I had surrendered to it when I knew I didn’t have the balance to cross the fallen tree across the “how deep” stream. Had I, I would have become even further astray. That I had remembered a line of poetry to tell me to stand still in the forest when I knew I was lost. That I had a phone and service. That I’d taken the map with emergency contact numbers. That the warden was back from vacation just that very day. That she was in that particular park, given her area of responsibility is all the public spaces spanning hundreds of kilometres to the west. That she could come and get me with her truck. That I hadn’t been stalked by the coyotes that had stalked another woman and her dogs on the same trail. That the sun shone and breeze blew comfortably. That the shots I heard fired by hunters were well beyond into another neck of the woods. That I had water, food, and time. Yes, I had prepared, and yes, I had been heard.

In that same conversation, we talked about the world, about their country, its upcoming presidential election, the pandemic impacts of COVID-19 and racism. It was before the forest fires burned into three states, leaving death and destruction, orange skies and zero visibility in their wake. I shared feeling that tension of wanting to do something to help and not knowing what. I emailed to them the next day:

… I realized I have felt “spellbound” by thinking I must do something, and not knowing what TO DO. But knowing, I do know how to pray. 

Many times it seems my thinking is foggy and lazy, that it isn’t “cogent” or coherent, that I can’t put together a compelling argument of defense. And then it came to me, this is the feminine way – to feel my way through a depth of complexity that is dark and foggy, that isn’t necessarily, yet, cogent nor coherent.

You wrote to me, gifted me, once with the invocation that I recognize with increasing vividness that I know what I know, that find myself less and less inclined to self-doubt, meekness and hesitation.

So, yes, I know the power of prayer.

I know too, the making of beauty.

Let the beauty that you love be what you do.

Rumi

I know the power of prayer and the making of beauty are my offerings for social action, for social change.

And this I know is holy alchemy.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.

Echoing Back

The wind has been blowing for a solid twelve hours, bringing in a new month and season. Suddenly it feels cold despite the sun shining. Donning a wool jacket, I sat outside to read and sip a summertime cocktail. Tonight, near freezing temperatures are forecast, and I feel the urge to snuggle into sweaters and let sandals give way to boots. So soon, so fast. And still a world living with Covid-19 and its continued uncertainties, wondering what this next season will bring to us all.

“We all lose our bearing from time to time.
Whether precipitated by a major event, or a gradual becoming lost, this is when the horizon you had been following disappears –
and in its place, a persistent anxiety searches
for the new direction of our lives.”

Toko-pa Turner

Feeling lost. Being lost. It’s a state I’ve felt more or less for months. Checked back and sure enough, I’d written about it in May, prompted by a lesson in The Soul of a Pilgrim course I’d been taking. A week ago, on a heavy, overcast day, not yet ready for the day to begin, I returned to bed and wrapped in the comforter, looking out into the trees, I gave myself over to that lostness.

What became apparent is that I needed a dose of alone time in Nature, I needed the peace of wild things to make peace with myself that I was no longer working; that the identity I’d had through work was no longer; that my feeling of belonging in community cultivated by that work, too, had now vanished. I needed to reframe my notion of retirement because like it or not, here I was, so soon, so fast. Though admittedly, it was a place of my own co-creation. I’d take a medicine walk on, yes, the Lost Lake trail in the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Park, thirty minutes east from home.

I packed my essentials and set out as I’d been taught in preparation for last year’s fasting quest. It was a beautiful morning, cool and quiet, though in the distance, I could still hear the faint drone of cars and the occasional train whistle. The trail was quite wet in spots, quickly soaking my trail runners (why didn’t I wear the waterproof ones?) and requiring some agile traversing on top of beaver dams (thankful I had my trekking pole). I carefully followed the trail map and signage as years ago, when cross country skiing, I zigged when I should have zagged and became lost on the same trail. I’ve walked it since, a year ago early spring and summer, but not enough to feel familiar and at home. And every season, every week even, it looks different with Life doing its work.

“So drop your maps and listen to your lostness like a sacred calling into presence. Here, where you may be tempted to take up false belonging, ask instead for an introduction to that which endures.
This place without a foothold is the province of grace.”

Toko-pa Turner

Arriving at the shelter, my half-way point, I briefly rested and watered, took my bearings and headed off to complete the circuit, or so I thought. A yellow tape and sign indicated the trail was closed, but there was another sign pointing the way, or so I thought. Walking further I encountered unfamiliar trail names, but confirmed I was still on the Lost Lake trail.

The sun, now high in the sky, was on my right, when I knew it needed to be to my back to be going the right way. I saw a marker for the Lost Lake shelter, and wondered, which one, as there are two on the map? Now I wondered, was I coming or going? All the while I noticed the trail had been freshly mowed, giving assurance I was on a well-travelled trail, and yet the sun was still not where it was supposed to be.

Then I arrived at small clearing, a three-way junction with a Lost Lake trail sign pointing down the trail, another pointing back up where I’d just walked, and the shelter sign and arrow pointing down the middle. Hmmmm…

I was lost.

I immediately recalled the wise words from David Wagoner’s wise poem Lost, “Stand still.”

So I did.

I took off my pack. I sat down. I retrieved my cell phone – thank god for service – and called one, then another emergency number. I gave my number and within minutes was called back by the local conservation officer who was in the area. In giving her my location, I turned over the map and found where I had made my mistake, taken my many mis-steps. And while I was pretty confident I could find my way back, I acknowledged I was tired, and so accepted her kind offer to get me, and followed her instruction to walk to and wait at the shelter.

“It is the questing field, most responsive to magic and fluent in myth. Here, where there is nothing left to lose, sing out of necessity that your ragged heart be heard. Send out your holy signal and listen for the echo back.”

Toko-pa Turner

Walking, stopping, resting, waiting. Echoed back to me was:

Hearing the clear and quiet acceptance of not returning to work as I have known it.

Remembering that I’d been in this place of uncertainty many, many times before and that it had always turned out OK.


Feeling the beginning stirrings of energy and seedlings of enthusiasm for something new.


Having the realization that I had manifested “out there” my own inner lostness, and in doing so had learned lessons and received gifts – the need for preparation, for knowing when to turn back, when to stand still and stay put, when to ask for help, and how to receive it.

Driving back with Karen, the conservation officer, she told me she’d been delayed because another woman called for assistance after she and her dogs were stalked by coyotes, a real concern because of this unusual display of persistent brazenness. She mentioned the resident though reclusive black bear, and, of course, moose, elk, deer, wolves, and beaver.

Hmmmmm…walking with a buddy would be a good medicine for next time.

With love and kindest regards, dear friends.