The Earth Is Our Body

Laurel grove in the late afternoon
Laurel Grove, Mt. Tamalpais

This morning I woke to Nimue Brown’s refreshing retake on The Burning Times. In true Bardic fashion, she did it in song.

I’ve had thoughts along these same lines—as a matter of fact, I was given a message to deliver on my return from Albion. Until I read this post I wasn’t sure how exactly to do it. I’m still not, but it has to be done. Samhain is the appropriate time, and by now I’ve processed the experience enough to be able to do it without the anger and fear it came to me in.

Mt. Tamalpais is the place I camp at most often because it is one of the wildest campgrounds I know that is easily accessible by public transit. The bus is going up the hill whether I’m on it or not, and the long trip was a chance to really look at my home as I passed from the concrete and glass of downtown San Francisco, the endless expanse of the Pacific as we crossed over the Golden Gate Bridge, and the wild beauty of Marin County. I needed to make a trip to my local sacred mountain on my return, before the green of Albion had faded and the gold of my native California looked normal again. It was a mile to Rock Springs and my usual stomping grounds, and I took my time getting there. The day was heating up and the trail is steep. I was standing in the grove of Douglas firs that was my first introduction to the mountain well before noon and it was there my revelations began. I got more than I bargained for.

Why was I up here all alone? I thought on the circle of friends that used to come here. So many are dead, so many more unwilling or unable to come here any more. It’s a long way up this mountain, even by car, and as we grew older, and fewer, more and more of us just didn’t find it worth the increasing effort. Lately, it’s been just me, my partner, and people we bring to see a wonder.

What of our new friends? Few of them are willing to make the journey. More and more of them have punishing schedules, or don’t see the point or expense of the journey when there are closer wildish spots to be visited. Many of them are sick as well, mentally, physically, or both.

This train of thought was growing increasingly depressing. I looked to my own actions. Why hadn’t I invited anyone up here with me today? If I was alone, surely I had something to do with that fact. I thought of all the invitations I’d issued, and how many had been declined. I thought of all the times the trips that had been made had been shortened because of discomfort, disinterest or illness on the part of my companions. I thought of the timing of this trip, and my recent trip to Albion. I’d come up here because after that experience I had a deep need to bring that time of magic and mystery back here, to my own sacred place. There was no one willing or able to make this trip with me now, when I needed to go. I was up here alone because the friends of my youth were unavailable, as are the friends in my present.

I couldn’t stay in the grove any longer. It was full of ghosts, and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. I walked back to Rock Springs, and then took the first trail that called to me. I felt like I had the flu, and wondered if the illness I’d fought back over the week before was returning. My throat was scratchy, and I was sneezing. I wasn’t really sick, I just felt unwell. I sucked on a cough drop and walked.

My first impulse was to go back down the hill, pack up my gear and go home. My first action was to get myself out of that grove, and I did, in fact, walk back down the trail towards camp. I needed to go to work in a couple of days, I couldn’t afford to be sick. Did the mountain call me to stay, or did I choose to do so on my own? Part of the decision was the fact that the first bus in a three hour journey wouldn’t be arriving for four more hours. Part was that I had paid my camping fee and I wouldn’t have another chance to come up here for a few weeks at least, and the rainy season, if it came, would be here soon. My connection with the land was stronger than my impulse to leave.

I stopped at the first lovely place that called to me, where the laurels grew among the rocks and I could see the whole north end of San Francisco Bay. Mt. Diablo, another sacred place, rose in the distance. The boats of Sausalito were specks on the water, and Angel Island was snugged up against Belvedere and Tiburon. First the shade of the grove was inviting, then the sun. I was still feeling sick, wasn’t sure if I was too hot or too cold but the puzzle of what was laurel and what was oak held my attention. The oaks are being ravaged by sudden oak death and the presence of laurel seals their fate, but I had never noticed just how similar the twists and turns of trunk and branch could be between the two different trees without the leaves to identify them.

I thought again about why I was up here all alone. Now, away from the grove, the rightness of this journey and this place finally came to me, and with it the realization of why that was. So many of us are too sick to be here. My bouncing back and forth was a symptom of the mental unrest, my uncomfortable breathing of the physical. I was feeling what the earth felt. As are we all.

As long as we keep doing the things that make the larger organism of which we are a part sick, we will continue to be sick too, in the larger sense. As long as we make excuses for doing the things we know will make us sicker the only changes that happen will be for the worse. There is no excuse. The cold laws of nature and the universe don’t care why we do the things that add to the illnesses we are creating and worsening by our behavior.
I’m not saying you yourself are making yourself sick. I’m saying that those of us who are are like the canaries in the coal mine. The numbers are going up as more and more of us, proportional to the population, develop cancer, diabetes, depression, and all the other illnesses that come from breathing bad air, eating poisoned food and drinking water laced with toxic residues. We can’t poison the insects and weeds that eat a proportion of our crops and not expect those poisons to march up the food web back to us.

We, collectively, are fouling our nest, making ourselves sick. With that sickness comes the natural urge to rest and recuperate, and so the separation is increased. We decline invitations, we let things go. We climb into the car, the ultimate means of separation from the Earth and each other and drive distances we can easily walk or take transit to. We don’t feel well. We need to rest. We need to take care of ourselves.
In my case, taking care of myself meant opening up and really listening. It meant carrying the message I was given. I’m not the only messenger, after all.  Once I did that, I found my breathing easing and my restlessness as well. By late afternoon the fog began rolling in and I walked down the hill in the cool, damp evening. I built a fire and made a cup of tea, still feeling that planetary malaise, but glad I hadn’t cut the trip short after all. What good would it have done? It isn’t my sickness, but it is. I cannot cure it with rest or medicine, and I know that ignoring it will only make it worse. All I can do is deliver the message, listen to the world around me, and choose life. I still don’t know what that means, and make of this message what you will.

This is Samhain, the time to reflect on the dead and the year that is ending, or waning, depending on your personal spiritual calendar. We have all the tools to hand to heal ourselves and our planet. It’s up to each of us whether we choose life or death.

Stone with a face in it
Rock Guardian

Ghost Story

The rooftops of Glastonbury, from an upper room of the hostel there.
View from Glastonbury Backpackers Hostel

I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve never looked for them, I don’t want to see them, frankly, but it’s happened nevertheless. None of them have been particularly scary, but they’ve scared the life out of me every time. Maybe it’s just because our worlds are not meant to meet. Maybe it’s because they are not meant to be, echoes that were supposed to move on but are trapped like flies in amber. Maybe it’s just my instinctive fear of death. My mind knows it’s just a passage from one state to another, but my body knows better.

There was the little dog under the bed across from mine in Glastonbury.  I had the luxury of a four bed dorm–with a view worthy of any novel concerning scullery maids–to myself for three glorious nights. On the second night I woke up to see a little dog curled up under the bed opposite placidly looking at me. I jumped for the light. The dog disappeared. It took me a bit of time before I could turn the light off and go back to sleep. Too bad, perhaps it was only observing me. Perhaps it was planning a journey that only we two could share. Perhaps I was having a dream that could have been even more interesting. I’ll never know because my first impulse was the light switch.

The ghost aboard the tallship came long before the dog, however. He really chilled me. He kept coming back, which was even more unpleasant. The first time I saw him I was sleeping alone in the main hold. All the bunks in the fo’c’s’l’e were taken and I was making do, hoping, as every recently joined crew member does, that one would open up. The main hold contains the galley, and padded bench seating that serves as the ship’s living room. So it’s basically couch surfing, salt-flavored. I woke up and it was dark. I saw someone bending over the coffee pot at the far side of the space, and my first thought was ‘Oh. It’s the cook putting on coffee. It must be 5:30.’ Then I realized the figure was glowing. “Joe?” No answer. “You’re not really there are you,” I said, and jumped for the light. The figure disappeared. I was alone in the space. The galley clock struck 7 bells. 11:30. PM. I was a big chicken and left the light on. We were in port, on shore power. No one noticed, as no one was standing watches. I didn’t do too much more sleeping anyway.

The next night the engineer came in late, drunk, and amusing, at least for a while. He knew what was what, and had no problem telling us. He steadily got angrier, and began talking to the bunk I’d been sleeping in. He was talking to someone who wasn’t answering him. He wasn’t having any of my telling him no one was there, and the purser, who had a Zen way about him that could calm almost anyone, was having a hard time with this one. By then I was getting upset, because I knew who I thought he was talking to, and that someone was lying in my bunk. In the end, the engineer went to bed, and I told the purser about the ghost. He took me to the fo’c’s’l’e and made a crew member, who was sleeping with his girlfriend each night anyway, give up the extra bunk he’d been claiming as his. She was crew as well, it was a common enough arrangement aboard, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it all. I was just grateful not to have to spend another night alone in that empty, dark hold.

Things were fine, we left port, and lived in that wonderful calm bubble that is offshore sailing. One watch on, two off, and all that we do is done in the service of Herself, the vessel that encloses us. We serve Her, she protects Us. We are one, and even if the food isn’t great, and the trip up the coast is bumpy in the extreme, as long as conditions at sea are good, we all fall into a state almost meditative. We stand our watches, take our turns steering, scanning the sea ahead for lights at night and obstacles by day, and check the bilge, the engine, the lights. We walk quietly on deck and don’t talk near hatches, knowing that the ship is hollow, like a giant guitar, and someone is always sleeping.

One night I woke. The ghost was in my bunk. I didn’t dare open my eyes, but I could see the glow of him through my eyelids, surrounding me, and hear the hum of him, there, but not there. I reached for my bunk light, and again, he was gone. I spent a long time telling him silently to go away, that this was MY bunk, and he was NOT welcome to share it. He didn’t return. Why me? I’d never seen a ghost before. I’d never *wanted* to see one, and very much never wanted to see this one ever again, though I felt sorry for him. The purser, you see, had known whom I was talking about. He’d told me that they’d picked him up one night, offshore. Maybe he had drowned and come across the ship one night. He didn’t know. That was all he said, and all I know.

The last time I saw him the ship was in port, all the crew gone except me. I was catching a greyhound bus south in the morning and was spending my last night aboard. I had my favorite fo’c’s’l’e bunk, had stayed up late reading in solitary splendor after an excellent dinner ashore. I once again woke up, in the middle of the night. A figure made of light was climbing down the fo’c’s’l’e ladder, inches from my bunk. JESUS! I jumped for the bunk light, he was gone. I eventually got back to sleep. The next morning I was gone.

In retrospect, maybe I missed out. I don’t know if any communication was possible, because I never tried. Only one other person on board knew what I was talking about–but I only spoke to one about it. No one else that I know of saw him, except possibly the engineer, and he was not in ordinary waking consciousness. Neither was I, every time I’ve ever seen a ghost I’ve been awakened from a sound sleep. What side of the border of sleep did these encounters happen on?

Maybe the ghost missed out too, if ghost he was. What state of consciousness was he in? What awareness did he have of the ship and of us? He climbed aboard one wet night, apparently. What might it be like to flow like the sea after dying in it, perhaps not knowing when the boundary between life and death had been crossed? The waters off the coast of California are cold indeed, he might have let go of life from the cold alone. Was he just trying to live his life, aboard this ship, or was he looking for a way to move on? Could I have helped him to do so?

All these questions flowed from that jump for the light switch. If I’m ever in a similar situation again, I hope I’ll stay tucked up in bed and see what happens.