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Yearning for the Wind
Celtic Reflections on Nature and the Soul
By Tom Cowan
New World LibraryCopyright © 2003 Tom Cowan
All rights reserved.
Walking through Soul
When I walk through the woods, I end up talking to myself. No, not end up. The internal dialogue usually begins within the first few minutes. I make plans, fret, scold myself or others, review arguments I lost, occasionally outline my deepest thoughts for some real or imagined presentation. It's not always useless chatter, but it distracts me and I fail to notice the gnarled oaks, the boulders with craggy faces, the sudden rock outcrops with dramatic views of the river, the mountains in the distance, the clearings.
I will discover myself standing on a magnificent rocky outcrop, talking incessantly to myself about the best time to wax my car or wondering what it would be like to live in a culture that had no word for time. Then I suddenly become aware of the magnificent view before me and realize how totally oblivious I was to the beauties and powers of nature, which are the very reason I walk in the woods in the first place.
Nature, however, always finds some way to interrupt my internal chatter. She'll trip me on a root, or turn my foot on a stone, or swipe my eye with a low-hanging branch, and I'll remember. But within minutes, I forget again, jaunting on as if the woods were not really there, as if resolving to wax my car before winter were more important.
I should really be better at hiking in the woods. I have been hiking in the woods since before I could walk. My parents took me into the Missouri Ozarks when I was a baby who still viewed the woods — and everything around me — as part of me. Of course, like all growing children, I stopped seeing the world this way. We all do. We create the Great Split between ourselves and nature, thinking we are different, or removed, or even alien to the natural world. I must have done a good job of it because I can spend hours in the woods and never get out of my own head.
There are many spiritual practices that attempt to remove this dualism of the Me and the Not-Me and to recover and strengthen that sense of wholeness and oneness that we knew intuitively as children. I have tried many of these over the years with varying success. Clearly I am not an expert at it.
Of course, we don't ever really lose this sense of oneness with nature. We still shudder in delight at a sunset behind the mountains, catch our breath seeing the change of light on the river, and thrill to the ever-moving cloud patterns sweeping the sky. In such moments, we know that there really is no duality in all this, that on some mystical level we are the river and the setting sun, we are the clouds above the hills. But our internal chatter, like some inner demon who despises mysticism, derails those moments of magic and grace.
In a medieval document known as The Four Ancient Books of Wales, the Welsh Druid and mystic Taliesin says: "I adore my God, my Strengthener, who infused through my head a Soul to direct me with its seven faculties: fire, earth, water, air, mist, flowers, and southerly wind." Sometimes I try to recite this as I hike through the woods, to hold this vision that the elements through which I walk are the powers of my soul. If only I could always be hiking this Great Mystery: assured that the hills, rivers, trees, and clouds are the faculties of my soul extended beyond my head, my body, my feet, even beyond the footprints I leave in the dust of the trail behind me.
My soul can hike farther than I can, if my thinking mind will only give it free rein. The twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen would have said that my soul could hike on forever. She put it this way: "Just as the heart is hidden in the human body, so is the body surrounded by the powers of the soul because these reach to the ends of the earth."
To the ends of the earth!
I don't tote my soul through the woods as if it were an uncomfortable backpack. My soul carries me. Along trails, up cliffs, down to the river, to the far mountains, to the setting sun, beyond the wisps of cloud turning pink in the west. Air, fire, water, earth, mist, flowers, and southerly wind. These are the stuff of soul.
It is not the woods I hike through. I hike through the field of power around me that I call my soul, even though at this moment, in this place, I may call it "the woods."
When I walk through the woods, I end up scolding myself for being so oblivious to trees, air, rocks, river, my soul.CHAPTER 2
Mist, Flowers, and Southerly Wind
Mist, flowers, and southerly wind. How did these three acquire the same status as earth, air, fire, and water?
Mist is air and water. Southerly wind is air and heat. Flowers are a spectacular blend of soil, water, sunlight — and even air, for a flower does not stop at the edge of its skin, any more than we stop at the edge of ours. Around every flower is the sweet fragrance of scented air. This field of fragrance is the flower's soul. The soul is not just inside the flower. The flower lives inside its soul. As we do.
As a child I used to obsess about the riddle that asks: If a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one to hear it, does it make any sound? I always suspected that both answers — yes and no — were wrong, or not quite right, and that the science of sound waves and eardrums missed some important point.
The same riddle might apply to flowers. If there is no one around to sniff it, does a flower still smell fragrant? If no one believes in the souls of flowers, do they still have souls? I would answer "yes" to both questions. There is no stopping the sweet fragrance of flowers. It is part of the "grandeur of God," which poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says "will flame out like shining from shook foil."
There's no stopping the soul that radiates out and around us, anymore than one can stop the sweet perfume of a rose. You could, of course, hold your nose. But the rose will continue to exude its rich fragrance even while you suffocate.
The soul is not in the body, the body is in the soul. This is not easy to understand or to live. But we must try. If we don't, we circumscribe our life and greatly reduce the ways we know our souls, we strengthen the Great Split between us and creation.
Mist, flowers, and southerly wind defy the distinctions and dualities of the elements by reminding us that the elements merge and flow into each other like Celtic braid work. Each of these three is a combination of elements, with air being the one common to all. Is this because air, like soul, is always both in and around us?
An Irish text from the tenth century called The Evernew Tongue purports to be a teaching by the apostle Philip concerning creation and the nature of the universe. It states, "Every material and every element and every nature which is seen in the world are all combined ... in the body of every human person." It then goes on to explain this specifically. Wind and air are our breath; heat and boiling from fire make the blood; the sun and stars put luster in people's eyes; bitterness and saltiness cause tears and the anger in human hearts; stones and clay are our flesh, bones, and limbs; flowers and other beautiful colors of the earth give complexion to our faces and cheeks. All of these are "in the body of every human person."
The elements of nature are not just out there, or in our souls, but in our bodies as well.
A Welsh document called The Book of Llanrwst offers a similar description of how all the elements of creation are present in the human body, and, adding two, describes what it calls "the eight parts of man." "The seventh is the Holy Ghost, from whom issues the soul and life; and the eighth is Christ, that is, the intellect, wisdom, and the light of soul and life." The physical elements of nature, soul, life, intellect, wisdom, and the mysterious "light of soul and life" — these are what we are.
What it boils down to is this. We are mist, flowers, and southerly wind. We are composites of all we see around us. We have the woods, river, clouds, mountains within our very bodies, and in some unexplainable way, these elements that make up the physical universe and our physical bodies are also the powers of our souls.
Try this the next time some natural scene of beauty or power pulls you toward it. It might be a radiant sunset, the stars on a very clear, cold night, a great expanse of beach with waves rolling in one after another, or just a small creek trickling over mossy stones. Close your eyes and continue to see the scene, and realize that the pull it has on you is coming from within you as much as from without. The pulling, the longing to let it fill you, the yearning to know the sublime nature of this scene reside in both you and the scene itself. There is no barrier between you and it. Even though it seems to be "out there," or even "way out there," it is in your soul. It is part of your soul, for there is no "way out there." Its elements are your body, pulling, longing, and yearning. The whole Earth is pulling, longing, and yearning. Take a deep breath and let these wonders fill you. Then open your eyes again.
When you leave this scene, all the glory, beauty, and power of it will go with you. They are in your soul. You are still walking beneath those stars, along that beach, before that sunset. When you later hear that stream splashing over the mossy stones, you will not be hearing it just inside your head. It is out there. Out there in your soul.
Yes, there is always a great and terrible crashing when any tree falls, for no tree falls that does not fall within my soul.CHAPTER 3
Peepers, Figworts, and Baby Hawks
One spring day I was hiking down Bull Hill, a mountain north of Cold Spring, New York, on the Hudson River. As I turned a bend in the trail, I stumbled upon two young women whom I immediately suspected were from New York City. They were decked out in new, crisp, clean designer clothing. They looked like they had just stepped out of a catalogue of mock safari outfits.
The women had stopped by a vernal pool that would be dry by July or August. Each year I love to stop at this very spot, for it is high on the mountain yet swampy enough to be a mating ground for tree frogs. The mating song of the tree frogs is intense, mesmerizing, and can bring on altered states of consciousness if you give yourself to it. It carries all the juice and excitement of springtime and wet, new life.
The women seemed startled when they saw me; they responded somewhat nervously, as if they felt the need to explain what they were doing on the trail. They acted as if they had wandered onto private land and were afraid of trespassing.
Or I may have startled them out of a somewhat different state of consciousness as I lumbered into their soul space.
"Oh!" one of the women exclaimed. She looked at me with an embarrassed laugh but with the shrewd glance of a wary New Yorker scoping the danger level that my presence created.
"We were just listening to the chirping from all these baby hawks," the other said, coming to her rescue with an equally nervous laugh.
Baby hawks! I suppressed a smile. If this chirping was indeed from baby hawks, there were a hundred thousand of them! And every predator in the Hudson Valley would be swooping in from all directions for a feast! Nature does not allow vulnerable baby birds to announce their exact location so shrilly.
"Do you think they just recently hatched?" the second woman asked eagerly, trying to engage me in conversation.
I'm usually reluctant to destroy fantasies, but this felt like a moment of truth, so I said, "Well, I hate to say this, but I don't think those are baby hawks. They're tree frogs. We call them peepers. They chirp like that for a few weeks every spring while they're mating."
I expected to see their faces fall in disappointment, but they were tough, resilient New Yorkers. Their eyes actually lit up even more brightly. They gasped in delighted surprise.
"Peepers! Mating frogs!" one of them said, excitedly grabbing the other by the arm. "Just think of it! We're actually here the week they're getting it on!"
"Perfect timing!" agreed her companion. "How romantic! They're very loud."
"Yes," I said, not sharing their enthusiasm. "We actually like it when the good times end, so we can sleep at night."
The two both squinted at me in incomprehension. "You mean you can't sleep when they're having sex?" This was a new world for them.
"The noise," I explained. "They chirp like that all night."
"And you can actually hear them in the night?" She didn't seem able to visualize anyone sleeping so close to raw, unbridled lovemaking in the natural world. Or she didn't realize there were other pools of water like this one closer to home where the same ancient mating ritual was going on. Perhaps she herself lived on the fortieth floor in an Upper East Side apartment building where even the wailing of emergency sirens doesn't penetrate.
"Yeah. We hear them."
"How romantic!" They looked at each other mischievously.
I may have destroyed one fantasy, but at least I replaced it with another. I wished the two women an enjoyable day, and continued my descent.
Once there was a hermit living on the edge of a lake in Ireland. One morning he woke up and thought how nice it would be to have a fish for breakfast. So he got in his boat and rowed out to the center of the lake. As he did so, he noticed the hermit who lived on the other side of the lake walking right across the water. He could not believe his eyes! When they got within speaking distance, the first hermit shouted, "What are you doing out here?"
The second hermit answered, "I just thought I'd come out here and pick some flowers for my altar. But what are you doing rowing your boat across this meadow?"
Taken aback and a bit confused, the first hermit answered awkwardly, "Well, uh ... well, I thought I would come out and, you know, see if I could catch a fish for breakfast."
"Oh," said the second hermit with a smile of approval. "I think they're biting over by that clump of fig-worts."
So the first hermit thanked him, rowed over to the figwort bushes, lowered his line, and sure enough, caught a splendid fish.
He went home and had a delicious breakfast. And the other hermit went back with a beautiful bouquet of flowers for his altar.
I often think about those two women from New York when I think about those hermits.
Maybe they had indeed heard the chirping of baby hawks. There are many places in my soul that I have yet to discover.CHAPTER 4
A Source for Mystics
Every day we must rely on our senses to get us through our rounds of activities, even though we are repeatedly told that our senses can deceive us. Yet fully warned, people still live according to the old adage, "Seeing is believing."
I often wonder why we don't also claim, "Hearing is believing." When it comes to belief, we tend to favor our eyes over our ears and other senses. Maybe we don't trust our ears because they are more skillful deceivers than our eyes. Ears, after all, can lure us into a nursery of baby hawks. Worse, the limitations of hearing might convince us that a tree falls silently in the distance or that people across the street are moving their lips but not really talking. On the other hand, what are we to make of hermits walking on water and rowing boats across meadows of flowers? Seeing is believing.
In an old Irish myth, the hero Cormac journeys to the Land of Truth in the Otherworld, where he is instructed in the mystical realities of the Universe. There he sees a pool of water surrounded by hazel trees that drop their nuts into the water. Five salmon break open the nuts to eat the kernels. The juice from the purple hazels colors the water, which then flows from the pool in five streams that disappear beyond the horizon. Cormac inquires about this strange scene.
The ruler of this enchanted land, Manannan mac Lir, explains that the hazels are the Nuts of Wisdom, the fish are the Salmon of Wisdom, and the five streams, carrying the juice from the nuts and flowing from the pool, are our five senses. Then he tells Cormac, "Everyone drinks from the five streams. But only mystics, poets, and people with the gift of vision drink from the five streams and the pool itself."
I have been trying to put this difficult truth about reality into practice for many years. It is truly revolutionary in terms of the accepted paradigm in our society that says the objects of our senses are just physical objects. According to Manannan, the information that comes through our senses comes with otherworldly wisdom from the Land of Truth. Physical reality is not just physical, it is spiritual; it comes from a place of truth, wisdom, and sacred knowledge.
Excerpted from Yearning for the Wind by Tom Cowan. Copyright © 2003 Tom Cowan. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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