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In this small guidebook, I've gathered the voices of animals, elements, and land into a collection of meditations exploring the seasons of nature and the seasons of our lives. The stories are built upon the foundation of a few simple assumptions about nature and our relationship to her. While the basics of these meditations are ancient, the creatures who stalk these pages will teach you new truths about life and living, in a way that is uniquely, fascinatingly, and honorably their own.
Nature: The First Revelation
These stories are grounded in a vision of nature as the first revelation. I so wish this idea had been mine, but I discovered it most eloquently unfolded in the writings of Brother Wayne Teasdale, a modern-day monk and mystic. In MysticHeart, Teasdale writes, "Natural mysticism is the primordial revelation.... Long before writing and tradition, the divine reality communicated its light to us through all that is. Every ancient and medieval culture has known this truth in some form; it is part of the primordial tradition, the perennial philosophy, the universal wisdom that underpins the old cultures with their different religions.... This revelation is ... always available to each one of us, in every culture, in every time, in any moment of our lives. It is thus the first and permanent source of revelation."
We imagine ourselves to be modern humans, whatever that means - techno-marvels? brain masters? - but at the biological level, and in our quest for meaning, we are still Pleistocene people. Our minds trick us into believing we have achieved a certain heightened level of evolution, but our bodies tell us differently. That which moved us, informed us, inspirited us, and matured us hundreds of thousands of years ago remains unchanged: Nature remains the clean and pure page we write ourselves upon. She remains the bedrock of our human experience, the mother, father, and spirit revealed to us in physical forms we can touch and know in real-time communion.
She informs our dreams with her night sounds, infuses our days with everything we have come to know that endures - sunlight, breeze, soil, hard frost on autumn grasses. She births life in moisture and often straining, and takes it all back sometimes with fury. Somehow, in our ancient hearts and bones, we instinctively know that the glass-fragile days of our own lives mimic her in ways great and small, secular and spiritual, old and new.
The deep and enduring questions - who we are, what we are, what is true, how we heal - are inseparable from our relationship with the natural world because we are the natural world. The percentage of our bodies that is salt water is the same as the proportion of the earth that is ocean. What is left of us is composed of minerals, in a proportion which mimics that of the surface of the earth. The water and clay that fashion us are given to us by the earth, and we, in turn, exchange our molecules with hers on a regular basis. We are, in effect, miniature living planets. The Original Instructions encoded within us for living in a good way are the same instructions that the planet follows: care for your children, take only what you need, keep your nest clean, support your community, be cautious but never fearful, trust life.
The Original Instructions - also called the Law of Life - are posted all around us in the form of living creatures, living systems, and living cycles. To tap into the wisdom of the Law, we need only remember where to look and how to ask.
The Lessons of the Seasons
This book presumes a distinctly cyclical - as opposed to linear - pattern to human life. The circle and spiral, which are cycles themselves, are some of the oldest universal symbols known to humankind and represent ultimate cosmic order in nearly all early civilizations. In ancient Egypt, the number zero - the circle - was considered a holy place, the birthplace of all knowledge. The circle reveals unity, infinity, union, and motion (as the wheel). The circle is represented in human expression in countless forms, including labyrinths, wheels, mandalas, whirling dances, and medicine wheels. In nature, the circle reveals itself in such things as bird nests, wind patterns, tree trunks, fingerprints, planets, eyes, stones, and shells.
The geometric symbolism of the circle and square in conjunction - that is, a circle with four equidistant touch-points along its edge - is one of the oldest known symbols of the relationship between the finite and the infinite. It appears in the ancient art of Taoism, Islam, and Christianity and in the tribal traditions from which sprang all the world's religions. This ancient geometric symbol segments the circle neatly into four cardinal directions, or four seasons, illustrating the cycles of human life from birth to childhood, childhood to maturity, maturity to elderhood, and elderhood to death and rebirth. There are many symbols associated with the seasons. In nature, migration and hibernation are powerful symbols of autumn and winter. Flowers, hatching eggs, and ripe tomatoes carry the memories of spring and summer. In many traditions, the cardinal directions and their associated winds are the keepers of the seasons.
Revealed in the cycle of the seasons is an enduring and profound wisdom for humankind as we spin our way through thousands of generations of births, deaths, and rebirths on the wheel of life. I can think of no other aspect of creation that speaks to us as urgently or compassionately about the necessity to live life with fullness and integrity as the song and pageantry of winter, spring, summer, and autumn.
With color, texture, temperature, motion, emotion, light, and sound, the seasons sing to us in a chorus of voices, harmonizing through a miraculous cast of characters who tread alongside us on the same journey from one sun to another. All living creatures follow their seasons of germination, growth, blossoming, ripening, and decay. It has always been this way and remains so: nature remains the first and best example of how to live, grow, prosper, accept, endure, and let go.
Each season is bequeathed an energy unique to it. Living in harmony with the energy patterns of each season, as all wild things do by nature, we can learn again how to synchronize our own lives with the larger life of the planet and to align ourselves with the distinct possibilities of each fourfold cycle.
Each season is given its own set of important tasks. If we - humans and squirrels alike - do not, for instance, gather the harvests of fall, we will not survive the tasks of winter. If we - humans and robins alike - do not nurture our spring dreams, we will have nothing to hatch come the growing time of summer. Each season has its place in a larger sequence, as well. Winter cannot, according to the Law of Life, come after spring. The tasks of the seasons fall in a natural cycle, each building on the last and making ready for the next. In the seasons of our lives when we have witnessed un-commonly early springs, extraordinarily long winters, and shockingly unseasonal weather, we have seen, either in personal experience or in the news, the chaotic results - mudslides, floods, frozen crops, dangerous tides, drought.
Humans live two lives. One we share with the physical world. The other is lived inside us. In our inner worlds, we can rocket through all the energies of all the seasons in a day; sometimes in the midst of summer, we have our own private wintertime of deep silence. Still, what nature discloses to us from one season to the next holds true for our inner cycles, no matter how quickly - or slowly - we pass through them. The seasonal ripening, harvesting, and release must be mirrored in our inner journey in task and in sequence, because we are the earth in microcosm, physically and spiritually.
Every species has its signature gift. The beaver is a master engineer, the falcon a master flyer, the lark a master singer. We humans are master storytellers and story keepers. Although many animals and even plants have elaborate communication practices, from sounds to dances to smells, no creature tells stories in the way that we do. Since humankind discovered language, we have been telling stories that inform, teach, inspire, chronicle, caution, heal, and - perhaps most important - create meaning out of a perpetual avalanche of events and information.
After experience, the next best thing is, I believe, a good story. In this volume, you have a collection of good stories given to me by badgers and bison, magpies and moose, eagles and elk. Over a period of fifteen years, while living in a series of mountain cabins on river edges, hilltops, and flats, I collected these stories from a host of wild beings who were gracious enough to spend some moments with me. Each creature ushered me into a deeper understanding of what life gives to us - and asks of us - as we participate in the universal dance of cycle and season. Sit quietly with the stories and listen until you can hear the grunting of the bear, the whistling of the hawk, and the chuckle of the coyote. When your ears become open to these voices, all your seasons will be the richer for it.
Excerpted from Why Buffalo Dance by Susan Chernak McElroy Copyright © 2006 by Susan Chernak McElroy. Excerpted by permission.
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