This past week I took the boys and joined the inimitable Michelle Wilde at the weeklong Elements Gathering. We made cordage with wild dogbane, we carved raw alabaster into fetishes, we sewed and beaded braintanned buckskin medicine-bags, we started fires, we gathered food, we baked acorn bread, we wove baskets. My children went feral before my eyes, bartering for knives, setting traps, crafting their own belts and clothing from the desert landscape.
Every evening (rather surreally in this landscape of buckskin loincloths and flintknapping) there was world-class music. I wrote this reflection by lantern-light after listening to William Close play the Earth Harp. If you click on the link there, you will see a very professional and las vegas-y presentation of what the earth harp is. My experience of it was far more…well…elemental. I could feel the music rising up the ground through me, humming out all of the sadnesses and rough edges and deeply-carried emotions. I understood sound healing for the first time. In the context of the week, it was a life-changing experience.
Years ago, my friend Bud Howell introduced me to primitive skills and accompanied me to Tom Brown’s tracking school. In those weeks of tracking and shelter-building I could feel the beginning of something large and vital, but it fell by the wayside as the years went on. Now I had found it again. I felt as though I’d been watering one tree all of my life, and suddenly had learned that my life is not one tree. My life is an ecosystem, layered with shrubs and vines and groundcovers, and for the first time all of them were watered at once, and the raw bits and ends of my life started to cycle round and support each other. There’s really no way to put it into words. But this is what I wrote as it happened:
Today my little boy asked me: “can we see the wind?”
He asked: “Am I only disguised as a human?” He asked me these things as I carried him toward water. We’d been camping several days in the dry heat of a desert landscape, and he was parched, sunburnt and sore-footed.
We were walking from a women’s lodge where several of us had circled round in a teepee to share our stories of ceremony. When my turn came, I hadn’t known what to say. I’ve participated in countless ceremonies, from Western weddings to sweat lodges to fasting wilderness quests, and none of them have found me all the way. Some little part always stands aside, uncertain of inclusion, wrongfooted and afraid. So instead I shared a moment that stays with me still, though it occurred exactly half my life ago.
I was working on an organic farm for the summer, weeding fields and harvesting flowers. By day’s end I was bone-tired, mosquito-bit and sore. But on this farm, in the evenings, we gathered in a sandy circle called the Moon Garden and lit torches and danced. On this night, our final dance was an ancient one from Britain called Winds on the Tor.
We danced in a circle, and one by one, the dancers left the dance. The circle grew smaller and the music drifted out into the starlit night. When I felt it was my time to leave, I could not pull myself entirely away. I crouched behind the brim of the Moon Garden and watched as the dance went on. At last, the torchlight flickered over one lone dancer, one woman whirling in steps older than our language. She was lit in a single golden moment outside time, a moment of sacred time, and something flicked against my heart and I was never the same again.
Half my life later, in the women’s teepee, I shared this story as my son played in the center of the circle. I was keeping him close, because the day before he had wandered off and just kept walking, walking determinedly and unerringly away from me, his tiny body and tremendous will against the oppressive heat and endless acreage. He was gone for hours, and when I found him, he stepped easily into my arms and asked quietly for water and a superhero cape.
“Can we see the wind?” he asked.
“No,” I said, shifting him against me. “We can’t–we can only see what it does.” I found him some water and he ran off to play in his makeshift cordage-tied cape. I watched him, feeling raw inside, turning that moment in the Moon Garden over and over. Why was it so long ago? When had I stopped feeling with such brightness? Would I ever touch sacred time so fully again?
Someone had driven their brilliantly-painted retrofitted school bus to the gathering, and as I watched my son playing I noticed that now there were strings stretched from its upper deck to the musician’s stage far below. We were to hear the Earth Harp tonight. I’d first heard about the Earth Harp years ago, when I was invited by a friend to hear its debut at Wright Organic Resource Center. Something had come up and I’d missed the chance. Now I was to have another opportunity. Somehow our paths had crossed again.
The first notes did not sound until long after sunset. I was stretched out on the dusty ground with my sleeping son in my arms, drowsily waiting for the music to start, when something hummed through me like a thought. That’s what it was like, as though the earth itself was thinking something through me. It’s awful to try and put it in words, because it is music, but that is as near as I can come. The notes were low and resonant, like gongs. They set up a simultaneous vibration and stillness in me. William, the harp’s creator, had explained that the earth itself formed the body of the instrument. I was sitting upon the body of the instrument. I was the body of the instrument. He touched the strings with gloved hands and the resin floated up in clouds as the strings took his touch and magnified it, resonating against each other and all of us, singing low and sustained and impossibly beautiful in the starlight.
Tears began to gather and I let them come. I was ringing open, and I saw by the lifted faces around me that I was not the only one. I felt tumbled by the music. I did not really hear it, because it was in me. It was singing through me somehow. I held my sleeping son against me and lifted myself into the notes as they swelled against us, eyes closed, tears falling, humming with sound.
When it ended, I lay my son down in his brother’s arms and approached William, inarticulate and teary-eyed, and he folded me into an understanding hug. I walked back to our campsite and tucked the boys in, boiled some water for tea, but I could not sleep. I was too grateful and I was too inspired. I needed to make of my life a beauty as riveting as this, this music I had felt. I walked, placing each foot silently before the other in the stalking pace I had learned, pausing from time to time to touch the earth, or watch the movement of an animal through the night. I walked a long time. A star fell.
I saw it fall and again that last place opened, a little wider now, and I realized that I am always touching sacred time. The moments of understanding that tear your heart open don’t end at adulthood or with the birth of your children or even with the death of your dreams. They are always there in the wind above us. We are the ground, the instrument. The music plays and we resonate. We resonate to make the music audible for those around us with ears to hear. The divine winds flow across the ground and if we are only awake to witness them, what beauty we reflect!
I saw that falling star and called out loud for its beauty. I was its witness, an instrument as intricate and vast and lovely as all that I reflect.
Yes, my love, we can see the wind. We can see it moving in the people who are open to it, the people who are fully alive–William playing the strings of his harp, Christopher hunting, Hilary dancing with fire, Bud caring for neglected animals, Elizabeth turning alone in the Moon Garden in the steps of an ancient dance. A star falling. We are all humans in disguise.
This post is a song for the memory of Bud Howell, a bright star who first introduced me to primitive skills, and who lives on in the hearts of the many who love him. I love you Bud. Thank you for your light.