Living by Water: True Stories of Nature and Spirit

Living by Water: True Stories of Nature and Spirit

by Brenda Peterson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555914677
Publisher: Fulcrum Publishing
Publication date: 10/15/2002
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 9 Years

About the Author

Brenda Peterson is an acclaimed novelist and nature writer whose previous novel, Duck and Cover, was a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" and whose nonfiction works include Nature and Other Mothers, Sister Stories, Living by Water, and a memoir, Build Me an Ark.

Read an Excerpt

Playing With Nature

Midway through my life, I found myself in a dark wood. I'd undertaken this
journey into Schmitz Park, Seattle's last stand of virgin trees, to show a
visiting Cuban friend, who had never seen snow, how these dark, ancient
woods glow like a fairyland full of white drifts and bent cedar boughs.

Certainly I didn't expect fairies, but as we walked into the park, footsteps
muffled by the dense whiteness, we heard a cry. From behind several trees
leaped a band of medieval knights, their red crusader crosses blazing across
white armor. On the snowy path, the knights bowed in deep courtesy to a
gathering of black knights, a green-tailed dragon, various velveteen
ladies-in-waiting, and a few elfin folk. Without a glance at us, the pageant
passed by and we stepped aside.

"Maybe we are in a movie?" my friend suggested.

"But there are no cameras watching," I said. "Just us."

A large woman clad in black stepped from behind a hundred-year-old western
red cedar. "Yes?" she asked.

"What is all this?" I said. "'Who are you?"

"I am the Dark Force," she said softly and let out a low, lovely laugh. The
laugh lowered, resonant and soulful as a cello-but I didn't think she was
smiling behind that veil.

"Strange things happen when it snows," my friend whispered. Then she turned
to the dark woman. "In Cuba it's carnival time. Is this your Northwest
carnival celebration?"
The woman laughed lightly now. "We do this all the time. I usually play a
gypsy alchemist. And those changelings over there are cat people, the Kzin.
These are their woods."
Indeed the woods were full of cat-faced, fur-clad people who crept
stealthily along the creekbed. I was struck by their feline attentiveness to
far-off cries, a snapping twig overhead, that bird swooping low. A Kzin
scampered across the path, and seconds later we saw a tall man dressed in a
richly embroidered scarlet cloak; a silver dagger dangled from his thick
leather belt. He did not greet us. His eyes were riveted on some distant
ridge where there was faint shouting.

"That is our Gamemaster," the Dark Lady explained in a hushed tone. Her
voice was subdued-more from stealth, I guessed, than respect. "He has given
me the task of persuading the people to kill their unicorn.

"Why?" we asked.

"Because that is what they love most?"

She pressed a gold coin, stamped with the winged image of Pegasus, into my
mittened palm. Then she turned and strode into the snowy woods. Pausing at
the top of a hill, she made a mystic sign in the air, and I noticed she wore
fluorescent orange gloves.

I would not recognize this Dark Force if I saw her again, for she hid her
face from us. But I recognize the forces at work in those woods. It's what
happens when we play with nature, using not our will but our imagination.

What we witnessed that day was an elaborately organized group-at-play called
The Fantasy Alternative. Their motto is "Entertainment through Education'
and at regular meetings they plot intricate games to play against natural
settings. As adults they are simply continuing what we all began as
children-playing in the woods.

My friend and I ambled along the white trail, pausing every so often to
listen to the sounds of a pitched battle. Was it black against white
knights? Was it the Kzin purging their woods? Were they the penitent cries
of the people who had sacrificed their unicorn- a beautiful beast we never
did see?

My Cuban friend, Flor, is a Los Angeles psychologist who has spent most of
her career "counseling children and other artists," as she explains it.
While we watched the Kzin dart in and out of the woods, she commented, "Our
fantasy life needs to include nature." In her work with children of the
barrio-where gangs offer a surrogate family and drama is acted out in the
streets-Flor has taken these children into the wilderness to participate in
simple rituals. Using the traditional Native American concept of the
spiritual quest into nature to find one's own vision and totem, or animal
guide, these streetwise children develop deeper wisdom.

"At first the kids are afraid," Flor said. "One tough little nine-year-old
boy, Renaldo, asked me, 'Do they have Nintendo there? Do they have lights at
night? Are the bugs very big? Do snakes crawl into your sleeping bag?' I
assured him he would be safe-that with a little practice and listening he
would find his way in the woods." She lightly touched the bark of an
old-growth fir as we walked. "On his weekend vision quest, Renaldo really
did meet a snake. But it wasn't poisonous and it was much too shy to sleep
with anybody. The snake just coiled there-black with beautiful green
diamonds. It blinked at Renaldo, stared at him for several long minutes,
then graciously slithered aside to share the path."

"I said the magic passwords," Renaldo told Flor, his voice full of wonder
and pride. "That snake understood."

Renaldo's totemic animal became the snake, symbol of power and rebirth. And
because the snake's home was the woods, Renaldo was no longer afraid of the
forest-he had an ally there. In school, Renaldo made a terrarium and bought
himself a pet black snake. He said it was his science project. But he told
Flor with a sly smile, "You and I know who this snake really is."
On every field trip, Renaldo's imagination grew more fused with the forest.
When one of his ten-year-old friends was killed in a gang war, Renaldo began
having nightmares of gang members breaking into his house and killing his
family. Then in one dream, his snake appeared. "He grew big as a tree,"
Renaldo proudly told Flor. "And my snake scared away the whole gang." From
then on, Renaldo saw his snake as his secret protector at home, too.

We stopped a moment on the trail. "Without nature we are all lonely
children," Flor said softly. "Part of our loneliness and addictive behavior
is that we have lost the connection to nature... . Maybe that's why even
ten-year-olds turn to drugs. When a whole tribe of people is cut off from
its source and crying for a vision, drugs are a substitute for what the
Native Americans call 'medicine' or 'healing.'"

Above us the wind shook the tallest trees and white showers fell down on us
like a blessing. As Flor and I walked back home through the snow, I thought
of all the snakes still hibernating underground. I remembered my own early
years in the woods. My first rattle was made from a rattlesnake's tail tied
to a twig with leather thongs. As I crawled, I'd clutch that little rattle
in my fist and so startle towering adults who might mistakenly step on me.
When I was four and a half years old, we left the forest for some years by
the sea. It was thirty-eight years before I saw my forest birthplace again.
I returned to the high Sierra at the tip of Northern California to attend a
week-long women's summer solstice camp.

At first it felt odd to be back in the same woods I'd known as a child. But
after a few days, it was simple: I was playing again in my woods. Over the
week two hundred of us attended open-air classes in meadows and among the
trees. We sat in circles on the ground while we heard speakers on every
subject from "Basque Mythology" to "Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece"
to "Mayan-Hopi Wheels of Transcendence." We slept in tents or under the
stars and soon the sensible camping shorts, hiking boots, and visors gave
way to long, colorful skirts, bare feet, and bright gypsy scarves. It took
surprisingly little time to forget the polite strictures of society and
remember our more primitive tribal roots. In this, we had the
eight-thousand-foot altitude as our ally.

On the last day of this gathering, I took my part in the Dance of the
Tonals. It is said that when we are born, a tonal, or power animal, is born
with us to live alongside and offer itself as messenger between Earth and
spiritual worlds.

Led by a woman who'd spent her apprenticeship with a Peruvian shaman, our
study group of ten women spent a day together in silence and meditation.

"You can call your tonals to come dance with you," the medicine woman said.
"They will come gladly. They have never been far away from you. And once you
remember them, they will always be here."

She told us that our tonals live alongside us like shadows, teaching us what
animals know and humans have forgotten. "When you die," the medicine woman
concluded, "the animal dies, too. And maybe next life, you trade places."

Then we did a series of exercises to call our animals home to us. Different
tonals were silently summoned to take up their spiritual residence in each
of the body's chakras, or power centers-from root to belly to crown of the
head. In my navel center I felt the intricate circlings of a chambered
nautilus; in my heart a grizzly; in my root and crown chakras two connecting
serpents, coiled and patient as if they'd waited there forever for my memory
to return to me.

"At first I didn't see anything," a woman said when we finally broke the
silence to sit in one cirde in the center of a stand of ponderosa pines. A
thick blanket of dried needles cushioned us. Late afternoon heat shimmied in
the air like a mirage. "Then all of a sudden I realized I wasn't looking
up," the woman marveled. "I was gazing down at the tops of these trees. I
was looking out the eyes of an eagle as it glided."

We all told of the animals who answered our silent calls. Next to me was a
large woman who did have some of the gruff, maternal grizzly about her; next
to her was a dove, several snow leopards, a dark-skinned jaguar, and a
flaming-haired woman whose hooded black eyes gave her the regal fierceness
of a red-tailed hawk. One woman I recognized from several of my other
classes chose to keep her own counsel. She asked not to participate in the
ritual painting and costuming that the rest of us undertook in preparation
to dance in this ritual ceremony of recognizing and claiming our animals.

I knew this woman Diana's story; she'd confided it to me earlier in the week
as we sat by the lake in full sunlight. Her story was set in the shadows:
Diana was a double incest survivor. When her family's secret was discovered
by a relative, she'd been sent to a foster home. There Diana lapsed into a
silence that lasted several years. All that would rouse the child was
sitting in her rural backyard forest alone for hours at a stretch. Even when
Diana began speaking again, she never talked about her parents. She told
people they had died when she was very young.
Now Diana had children of her own and a loyal husband. Still her
hunched-over shoulders bespoke the hunted posture of the victim. When she
spoke, which she did rarely, she cringed as if the sound of her own voice
were too loud. Of course, the other women let her be. Of course, none asked
Diana to dance.

In preparation for our dance, we busied ourselves in the forest. Grizzly
looked for pinecones to make a great necklace, the Eagle feathered fallen
branches across her arms for wings, the black Jaguar crouched low in a
feline wariness. One woman emerged from her nearby tent with a leopard-skin
mask she'd saved from her childhood. Another woman, Elephants remembered to
thud on the forest floor with her big, bare feet, pausing to listen to her
own earthquakes.
At the sound of the drum's steady beat, calling us from the forest, we came
back to make a circle in the pine needles. Many of us had painted our faces.
I had silver zigzags running like lightning down my arms and face. Several
women had elaborately painted bird faces, and one woman, Salmon, showed
delicately etched blue-green scales up her bare back and legs. In the deep
woods, without much clothing, with faces painted and bodies adorned by
leaves and branches, anyone can become aboriginal. Anyone can remember that
this is our native land and we are all primitives. The child in us

As I finished painting my legs, I was startled by a movement in the forest.
Diana stepped lightly toward me, holding out a box of brightly colored
watercolor crayons.
"Will you help paint me?" she asked.

Diana was so transformed, I just stared at her. Atop her head was a branch,
a stretch of bark antlers. Her nose was painted black, proud and sensitive
as she seemed to sniff the air for signs of hunters. Around each bare breast
was painted a phosphorescent red-black-and-yellow bull's eye. There was a
flat, heavy stone clenched in each hand-her sharpened hooves.

"Who... what are you?" I asked, though I already knew.

Diana's voice was low. "A stag," she said simply. Then she turned around,
naked except for a branch encircling each ankle. "Will you paint my ass like
my breasts?" she asked,

I didn't move. A fear came over me. "I can't. . . ." I said. "It's ... It's
too terrible." I shook my head. "I don't want to help make you a target

Diana fixed me with dark, oval eyes that softened slightly.

"Please," she said. "It's part of my dance." Then she laughed huskily.
"I can't be my stag without it."

I nodded. As she stood at her full height, I painted two bull's-eyes on each
buttock, my hands shaking.

In the circle, the drum did all the talking, like a great heartbeat in the
forest. After dancing together for what seemed hours, we all sat silent.
Then each woman stepped alone into the center of the woods and, in rhythm to
the drum, let her animal move with her.

Grizzly never left the earth; Eagle never touched down; Snow Leopard danced
only a second, then as usual eluded us in the underbrush; Elephant broke the
silence with a scream and shook the ground with her stomping two-step. I did
my Cobra dance low in the pine needles, swaying to the drum as the trees
above me swayed. On my belly, I felt the Earth pounding against my navel.
At last it was the Stag who stepped into our center. A few women caught
their breaths, hardly recognizing Diana, She had never moved like this:
deliberate, forceful steps, massive head turning this way and that to watch
us, eyes black like bullet holes in her impassive face. As Diana danced, a
masculine sway to her wide hips, her hooves pawing the ground, I remembered
a hunting scene I'd witnessed once in Colorado.

In a game preserve, I stood watching a herd of deer graze. Suddenly a truck
pulled up and some drunken men jumped out. They were not hunters; though
this was the season, they wore no orange jackets. They had no notion of
tracking, the stealthy forest stalk. One man rested his rifle on the
barbed-wire fence of the game preserve. Before he could get his aim, a
subtle change ran through the herd. As if electrically charged, they all
grouped together tightly and moved slowly backward. From their center
stepped a huge buck, his antlers must have been six feet across. Very
deliberately, the buck stepped forward, steadily moving toward the man, his
head lowered. With a curse at what he thought was the buck's challenge, the
man pulled the trigger.

The shot echoed off the far ridge. Like gazelles, the herd scattered
swiftly. But the buck kept coming toward the man. Another shot. The buck
dropped to his knees, stared straight at the man, and toppled. With a hoot
of triumph, the men jumped back into their truck and took off. There was no
ceremony, no asking forgiveness of the deer for his sacrifice, no ritual to
clean and dress the buck, then partake in his great spirit so he might live
on in our nourished bodies.

I crawled through the wire fence and ran toward that buck. It lay alone in
the meadow. But I could feel the eyes of his herd watching me from the
forest. I kept my proper distance; the buck was still alive. He lay there
bleeding from two wounds, panting, his eyes liquid and dilated. At last the
dark eyes fixed, rolled back. With a breath like a sigh, the deer died. As
my father had taught me, I put a branch in the buck's mouth-food for his
journey to the spirit world's forest. Then I laid my palm on his warm flank,
tracing with one finger the bloodied bull's-eye.

That same stag danced again in Diana. She was all thunder and rage as she
spun around within our circle. Some women fell back from this raw display,
other women leaned forward, eyes riveting on the fierce antlers adorned with
dangling brass earrings. The Cobra in me swayed as the ground echoed
staccato poundings of drum and fading hoofbeats.

Much later Diana rejoined our circle. She still kept her own counsel. But I
never saw her cringe again, not once.

The next day when we were all leaving that forest to return to our homes,
Diana approached me quietly. "Thank you,"' she said, her eyes steadily
holding mine.

"Yours was the most beautiful dance of all," I told her.

Diana threw her head back, then said in a deep voice, "The stag in me was
never wounded." She laughed. "They missed me." They'll always miss me."
Diana turned to leave, calling out,

"Goodbye, Cobra."

I have never since then seen a deer without thinking of Diana dancing naked
in the woods, bull's-eyes all over her body. On my walks in the forest, if I
see a snake slithering across my path, I think not only of my own totemic
animal, but also of little Renaldo somewhere there in the wilds of Los
Angeles fending off gangs like the rattler warns his predators.

Now when I find myself midlife walking in the dark woods, I know I am not
alone. The animals are my allies; the trees are gods and goddesses who in
deep stillness keep the Earth's counsel. All that is alive calls out to me
to come play, to take my part in the dance.


Table of Contents

Shadow People1
Growing Up Game7
Animals as Brothers and Sisters13
Oil Spill Eulogy31
Wind on the Water37
Believing the Bond51
Watching for Whales in Winter68
Wild, for All the World to See73
Where the Green River Meets the Amazon80
Playing with Nature90
Moose Man102
On Drowning117
Living by Water133

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