Last week on Tuesday April 23, 2019 I was up early before the sunrise. There was much to do: an early swim at the gym, before an early day at work. Quietly closing the door so as not to wake the sleeping family, bounding down the stairs towards the car, I stopped in my tracks. The waning gibbous moon shone bright, but what captured my attention was the shining planet just beneath the moon visible to my naked eye. What celestial body briefly shared a trek across this late April night sky with our moon? Quickly searching Google, I learned the planet was Jupiter, the fifth planet from our sun and the largest in our system, a gas giant like Saturn; Jupiter sacred to the principal god in Roman mythology, and visible in the night sky to astronomers since antiquity. Two days later on Thursday April 25, I was once again awake early before the sun, once again on my way to swim. That morning, Saturn was the moon’s companion, although much dimmer than Jupiter, it was still the brightest celestial body closest to the moon. Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and the second largest planet in our solar system. It is the most distant of the five planets visible to the naked eye, the other four being Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. The Heavens gave me a glorious gift this week: a full moon and two rare planets. Jupiter and Saturn dancing with the moon consecrated the rare coincidence of Pesach and Easter, a conjunction giving us here on Earth a special time to consider the interconnectedness of deliverance, freedom, redemption, and forgiveness.
In the Sixteenth Century, French-Dutch mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes, launched the modern age with his words Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore, I am. With this new framework, he separated the mind from the body, freeing the mind from the body’s passions, and banishing the idea that sickness came from a sinful and impure mind. This concept complemented Francis Bacon’s scientific methods based on empiricism and inductive reasoning, and consequentially, humans gradually separated from ourselves as natural beings, no longer in tune with the spiritual gifts of wilderness. In Western society, animals became creatures to be feared or resources to be exploited, instead of interconnected beings deserving respect as cohabitors of our planet. Animals became veiled in our fears, our greed and our separateness.
And animal names became epithets hurled to mock and mark, or threatening masks donned to wield power.
- You are a vulture: They were tearing themselves to pieces, and their vulture lawyers, were picking at the carcass of their marriage.
- You are a snake: You’re nothing more than a lecherous snake in the grass.
- You are a wolf: Who do you feed to the media wolves?
In large part, we are divorced from nature. Wilderness and animals have become our adversaries instead of teachers with whom we share time and space. Indigenous peoples embraced animals as a bridge to the liminal, lifting the veil into the spirit world.
Hilary Stewart in Looking At Totem Poles writes “the people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things and their dependence on certain animal and plant species fostered belief in the supernatural and spirit world. Life forms, especially those taken for food…each had their own spirit…certain birds and animals were associated with particular behaviors, powers or skills, and people sought their help to achieve success…in the dark of long winter nights, when fires burned…then the spirits drew close to the village…a time of ceremonies, speeches, singing, dancing and feasting…through costumed spiritual transformations and re-enactments, they brought past histories and adventures into the present…thus the carved beings of crest and legend portrayed on the totem poles, often recreated in masks worn by dancers, sprang to life.”
On this Halloween, as you engage in the ancient rituals of Samhain welcoming the end of harvest and the return of winter’s long nights, contemplate the true meaning of the mask you wear to celebrate the season. And while I will never advocate for discarding the benefits of the Age of Enlightenment, I would argue for the necessity of balance, and a framework that envisions humankind as a part of the natural world, instead of outside of the natural world, where it is all to easy to don the mask of conqueror and exploiter.
Early Sunday morning I walked the desert, my destination, four miles away and some two thousand feet above in the granite-mountains. I am on a pilgrimage of sorts, my feet drifting on the sands of an ancient lakebed, once home to mammoths, mastodons, and short-faced bears. Walking, hoping to reach stasis, seeking to regain what has been lost.
Reaching the hand built stone structure, an ashram, built by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, philosopher and mystic, almost a century ago, high in the Eastern Sierras between two forks of Tuttle Creek, I sat down to refresh and ponder. Below, I could see the valley and the steep trail now ascended, a metaphor for my journey. Yesterday, I knew little about the pinyon pine’s importance to the people who have called this valley home for thousands of years. My time at the Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center in Bishop opened my mind and my heart. Yesterday, they were pinyon pines a part of the ecosystem. Today, I knew the pinyons, scattered throughout the landscape, were foundational to the preservation of a people and a culture. Looking closely at the precious nuts growing within the cones – a vital source of protein – I understood what stewardship meant, to ensure a good fall harvest for a long cold winter.
On your journey, be present, with an open mind and an open heart. It is never too late to learn and it is never too late to teach. It is never too late to love and it is never too late to forgive.