Recalling memories can feel like a dream. It feels dreamlike that not long ago I lived under a live oak tree for five days. That I hiked alone into the wilderness to fast and initiate a wilderness rite of passage. That I took a ferry to and from Cumberland Island National Seashore off the coast of Georgia. One month later and my fast (an annual ceremony) already feels like dream.
That is part of the work when undertaking a wilderness rite of passage ceremony - to remember what is real and earnestly live into the emerging newness revealed during that special time-out-of-time. To integrate. To become. To take gifts from the experience and give them away.
My intention for the ceremony was around the theme of integration. Of becoming whole-hearted and taking action from a place of deep connection. During the ceremony I experienced depths of physical strength, communed with lightening bugs, and allowed myself to be enveloped by a beautiful land that I didn't know existed.
To be sure, I had my share of chiggers, countless ticks, and moments of doubt and fear. The gifts received lie in the tension between the opposites, the fear and the beauty, the strength and the frustrations. Sitting with myself, the larger body of nature, and the relationships between everything was a modern day privilege. I walked away from my five day ceremony with a renewed sense of connectivity, with a feeling of falling in love with the earth again, and of being in awe by the sheer diversity of life on one single island. I rode the ferry back to the mainland in complete elation.
And then the other shoe dropped. I returned home to find a GIANT live oak tree - just like the one I had been living under for the past five days - being efficiently, mechanically cut down and put into a mulcher. The sound of the mulcher was torture. I was inconsolable and vacillated between rage at humanity's ignorance, and utter sadness that such a majestic life was gone without any acknowledgement.
I laid on the floor of my house bewildered. And then I remembered. I had just made a commitment to act from a whole-hearted and deeply connected place. And here was my opportunity to practice. I was not the same woman from five days ago. I had new skills and focus. I pondered how I could honor a life that was unceremoniously ending and remembered the Radical Joy for Hard Times practice - to make beauty in wounded places. To me, cutting the tree, especially during bird nesting season, was a wound.
In Radical Joy fashion I found materials in my yard and made a bird on the ground, as a witness to the tree that was falling. I found a large coconut shell from my compost and made an eye so big that surely the tree knew we saw it. As I placed each piece to make a bird, a shift occurred. Addled and helpless feelings slowly shifted to grounded and empowered embodiment. I could not change what was happening but I could bear witness.
Making the bird, the witness, gave me courage to ask the tree cutters why they were cutting the tree. I was given a canned speech about loving animals as much as loving trees and to further deflect, was guaranteed they checked for nests before cutting it down. I remain skeptical but felt compassion for the tree cutters who were doing their job. I also know that enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was not likely to happen. Nor did I want to spark an argument with my relatively new neighbors, whom had hired the tree cutters.
Having been burned by this type of confrontation in the past, recently I've withdrawn from engaging. But the act of creating the bird helped move me from angry activist to inquiring witness. From a place of inquiry I was able to hold the tension between feeling vulnerable and empowered. Out of that came the ability to act from a place of feeling connected to the tree, the tree cutters, the neighbors, the birds, and the squirrels.
The gap remains where the tree had been and in its place the sky shines brighter than before. I'm still unpacking the gifts from the wilderness fast but I know for certain that even though the memories are fuzzy, the experience was real. In the weeks since returning home, opportunities to practice holding tension between the opposites continues to arise. My relationship to the tension is changing. Some wilderness fasting ceremonies induce radical changes to individuals undertaking them (like my first one in 2011), while others encourage subtler changes. Today, I'm appreciating both.