Note: This post was originally written April 26, 2021, part of a collective response called Reading Robin’s Essay where contributors responded to portions of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance”. Spring 2021 was very dry, after a number of very dry years.
Have you had the experience of wandering in a familiar place, and suddenly seeing another being as if for the first time? Each time you go out, it’s as if you are drawn to this being? I liken it to being tuned in, on the same frequency as say, a white tailed deer. When I am tuned in like this, I see deer everywhere. I walk over a rise and there is a doe and we gaze at each other for a few timeless moments. I disturb a fawn hidden in a clump of trees. I find antler sheds everywhere. Sometimes, I am attuned in this way to a creature for a few seasons. At other times, I am drawn to a particular plant. Last spring, the willows, and later, the pussy willows, had me in their thrall. I visited them every day, photographed them, spent hours exploring their startling spring hues with water colour paints. These last few seasons, I am drawn to water. To the places that once held water and do not any longer, to the places that still hold water. I am drawn to the ways that water moves, the ways that it stays still.
This began last fall. I love walking the fields after harvest, taking note of their swells and hollows, their dips and rises. Almost without knowing it, I found myself walking a low channel that led to a large shallow depression in the land, both dry. For most of the springs I have lived here, these places are full of water, attracting thousands of snow geese, ducks, and, sometimes tundra swans during early spring, and shorebirds as the water recedes. We have had a series of dry years, so these low spots now hold the memory of water, the echoes of those rowdy geese. As I walked, I imagined these places full of water, as they once were. As I walked, I realized that my walk was a kind of prayer for the return of these waters.
Not so long ago, I went to Pheasant Creek after listening to Pat McCabe, a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, and ceremonial leader, speak about engaging with water. I had watched the creek’s spring flow ebb in a few short days. Now, the creek had become a series of ponds with dry land between each pond. Our land is thirsty. My intent was to offer prayers. While sitting with the creek, I had a strong sense that I needed bring a bottle of water each time I visited, and to present it to the creek and the surrounding hills as an offering. Such a simple request. A new practice for me.
Now each time I go wandering, I pack a jar of water in my knapsack. Sometimes I sit quietly on a favourite rock near a shallow, still pond. It may seem still, but that’s deceptive. Duck weed is starting to grow here and there. A water bug disturbs the smooth surface of the water. A light breeze ruffles the water, small ripples are created. Reflections shift with the ripples.
I walk along patches of dry creek bed. Pheasant Creek meanders, curving in a most satisfying way. I hop from rock to rock, observing the pattern of the rocks, how in previous years the water has arranged and rearranged them. The grasses, too, show the movement of the creek when it is flowing. There are tiny shells, also holding the memory of moving water.
I wonder – if I was a creek bed, what would it feel like to have rushing water move over top of me? Then in another season to be exposed to air, to wind, to rain, to snow? To feel the sharp hooves of deer, the soft pads of coyote, the rubber sole of human feet on my belly when I am accustomed to the feel of water? If I was water, what would it feel like to move over and around these rocks, to navigate each curve, to caress the creek bottom? Would I feel the difference between flowing the length of a creek and merging with another body of water, and not flowing – becoming a pool with land all around? Does the rock I sit on miss the feel of being submerged in water?
In light of the many serious issues facing water on our planet and right in my own back forty, it is tempting to wonder if making an offering to the water, or taking time simply to be with bodies of water (or with the land) can make any difference.
I think it can.
I like the question Barbara Barnett asked in her piece entitled, “Meeting my Judgement” +: “With what mindset and heartset do I come to the harvest?” I might ask “with what mindset and heartset do I visit the coulee, sit by the creek, wander the hollows in the fields?”
I was recently reminded that before I spend time with a body of water, a tree, or other being, I must first ask permission. Hello, may I sit here? May I listen? May I share with you?* The idea is that I might have an intuitive sense that at this time the rock I like to sit on would welcome my company, but at another time, maybe not. Asking rocks and trees and water for permission to spend time with them was certainly not a part of my upbringing! At the same time, as a child, water seemed to be not only amazingly alive, but also filled with magical properties! Like so many of us, my imagination has been reigned in by our Western consumer culture which does not see the water, the tree, or the creature as sentient and conscious with complex ways of knowing. But if I believe that the rock, the tree or the water are in some way aware of my presence, then it makes sense that I would extend the same courtesies I would to a human friend.
Can I slow myself down, still my hamster wheel mind, and approach the land with an open spirit? We can get so busy that we overlook the gifts around us and do not have enough open space within to really take them in. As Geneen Marie Haugen, writer and wilderness wanderer, writes, “So much clamours for our attention, such noise, constant seductions and distractions, from whatever is most valuable to us. It is challenging to pull way from the narratives that are being determined for us, and to engage instead, with the wild earth or the deep imagination.”
I remind myself what I understood so clearly as a child, to “go wandering as if there are listeners”. I like how nature writer Barry Lopez puts it, “One must wait for the moment when “the thing” – the hill, [the creek, the tree] – ceases to become a thing and knows that we are there.”
It isn’t only that the deer, the willow, and the water “know that we are there”, but also, according to my friend spasaqsit possesom (Ron), they are darn happy we are there, and that we are noticing, becoming tuned in. Finally, they say!! Our attentive presence matters. It is imperative. This is an integral part of reciprocity.
I understand that “it is all gift”. Water, and every other aspect of our life. When I make an offering of water, I acknowledge this. As Robin writes, “Conceiving of something as gift changes your relationship with it in a profound way, even though the physical make up of the “thing” has not changed. Gratitude is so much more than a polite thank you, it is the thread that connects us in a deep relationship…”
To spend time intentional time on the land, near water, or under the sky and to pay attention is a counter cultural act. To be with the natural world in this way disrupts the dominant Western narrative of the land that is so deeply ingrained in us, even if just for the hour or two that we are out there. In subtle but important ways, I gradually change my orientation to all that is. By “tuning in” to the natural world, I let go for a time of the frequencies that dominate so much of my life. When I can settle in to a place, begin to move with the rhythms of the land, wander and explore “as if there are listeners”, I begin to know my right place here on earth.
+ Barbara Barnett’s piece called “Meeting My Judgement” was a part of the collective response to Reading Robin’s Essay, which was shared with other participants.
*Thanks to those who took part in Brooke Arnold-Roche’s “Emerging into Spring” (https://fireandhoney.ca/) for “reminding” me and furthering many of my thoughts.