by L. Lisa Lawrence
When I sit back and try to identify my first significant spiritual experiences, I can’t come up with just one but rather a series of experiences that share a common bond of nature and wilderness. These experiences span my entire lifetime and began when I was too young to understand them.
I was blessed to grow up on the coast. Some of my earliest memories involve running along the waterline dodging the incoming waves picking up seashells, building sand castles and watching the Pacific Ocean crash onto the rocks and cliffs sending its salty spray skyward. I remember the sun setting over the Channel Islands painting the sky orange, pink and purple. I was never as happy anywhere as I was where I could experience the sand, wind, water and blazing sun.
As a small child, barely 3 years old, my heart stopped beating as a result of respiratory arrest induced by an asthma attack while running on my beloved beach. I can’t recall any “white light,” dead relatives or even the paramedics restarting my heart with an intracardiac epinephrine injection, but I did know that my life ended and began again at the edge of the sea. From that day on, I would always be tied to the water. I was literally reborn to it.
Later, farther north on the coast, as an adolescent drawn to the beach and water, I defied my parents and climbed down a treacherous trail from cliffs to the beach below, only to be trapped in a cave by the incoming tide for several hours. I was not afraid but was at peace, knowing that the never-ending cycle of the moon and sea would let me go home when the time was right. I explored the labyrinth of caves and discovered bats, otters and sea lions that were more than willing to share their space with me and didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by my presence. Time stood still while I was in those caves. When I emerged, I was shocked to see the sun setting, and I made my ascent back up the cliff. I returned to those caves many times when I needed a place to just be — although after getting in trouble for worrying my parents, I learned to check the tide tables first.
When I got older and began to expand my geographic horizons, I discovered the foothills, forests and mountains. As a teenager, I rode the bus from my small costal town up into the foothills to work at a fancy inn’s riding stable on weekends and vacations, shoveling horse poop and guiding trail rides for a mere $15 a day, unlike my friends who were working at McDonald’s or in a fashion store in the mall. My reward for all the sore muscles, sunburn, saddle sores and blisters was being able to escape into the hills on my horse, alone. The pressures of a challenging academic program, teen angst and a dysfunctional family disappeared as my chocolate brown gelding and I ascended the steep hills and galloped across meadows with the wind blowing through our hair. Almost every evening, I watched the setting sun turn the Topa Topa Bluffs a bright pink and listened to crickets and coyotes sing a welcoming song to the twilight. I was at peace. I was at home. Only reluctantly would I come down out of the hills, walk two miles to the bus stop and take the hour long ride back down the hill to “real life.”
On the outside, I appeared quite “normal”; I was popular, excelled at sports, held elected office, did well in my classes and was involved in community theater, a church youth group and journalism. But I knew that I was different and often needed to escape to nature, which was the only place that I truly felt at peace. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anyone else that was like me, so being a typical teenager, I just did my best to fit in. I would soon discover that denying your true nature doesn’t work.
If I hadn’t already figured out on my own that I was “different,” it was brought home to me in junior high school when our Methodist Youth Fellowship youth group took a religion test. We were presented with a series of statements and were asked if we agreed or disagreed and on a scale of one to five how strongly we felt about it. Our answers resulted in a numerical score that correlated to a specific religion. Out of the 14 that took the test, 13 scored “First United Methodist,” and I scored “Unitarian.” I’m certain that “pagan,” “witch” and “tree-hugging dirt worshiper” were not included on the test, and that I had, in fact, received the lowest score possible. In our small costal town, the Unitarians were “those pagans on the hill who drink wine and have naked hot tub parties” and were not thought highly of by other churches.
After graduating from high school with honors as part of a group of friends who composed a Who’s Who of well-adjusted overachievers, then graduating from college with a degree in accounting, I spent a year and a half trying to do what was expected of me by taking a stable government job. I tried to force myself to work in a concrete and glass climate-controlled building, and in true overachiever fashion I became the youngest-ever deputy treasurer for the County of Ventura. It wasn’t me. I just couldn’t take it. At the tender young age of 21, I ran off to go fight fires for the Forest Service.
It was there that I found others who also loved nature and needed to be in it as much as possible. Every morning, I would take long hikes in the mountains, encountering bears, mountain lions and eagles that did not react to me as if I was an intruder, but rather as if I belonged there. It was there that I began to have visions of the spirits of the land and to understand my connection to the earth and the meaning of my dreams. I was finally free to be myself and even had others with whom I could openly discuss these things.
Soon, I became a liaison between the federal land management agencies and the local Native American tribes. Tribe members invited me to sacred ceremonies, and elders taught me because they recognized my connection to and dedication to the land. During my time and travels with the Forest Service and Park Service, I was accepted by several tribes.
But I knew that I didn’t belong. I became confused and discouraged that it was okay for the earth to be your religion if you were Native American, but not if you were white. It was as if I was trapped between worlds, not fitting in either. I knew I could never go back to the church I was raised in, and I felt that I would spend my entire life wandering in the wilderness alone, without those of like mind.
As I questioned and explored more, I discovered that my mostly Celtic ancestors also had a tribal culture that honored the earth and that was quite compatible with what I had been taught by Native Americans. I did as much research as I could, found bookstores, covens and teaching circles when they were available in towns near where I was stationed, and I had many mentors and pen pals (this was in the days before the Internet). I finally learned who the woman was who stood at the foot of my bed when someone died or when there was danger. I had inherited my line’s banshee, who skipped a generation from my grandmother to me. I even finally found my way to a few of those “pagan” Unitarian churches.
My formal training enhanced but never took the place of actually being in and connecting to nature. I stood on mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains talking to and honoring the spirits of the land. I sat in sweat lodges in the very womb of the Mother in the Black Hills of South Dakota and had visions that I can’t share here that told me to remain close to the earth. I’ve seen the ancestors in the pueblos of the Southwest and heard the music of the desert.
Each new sacred place in nature taught me a new lesson or introduced me to a new guide; many of them appeared in physical form and would do whatever was necessary to get my attention. High above the Colorado River, a golden eagle buzzed me numerous times and almost knocked me off a 2,000-foot cliff, appearing incensed that I didn’t recognize that it had graced me with its presence and was trying to give me a message. That eagle taught me that there is a message in every encounter and that it is our job to recognize and learn from those messages. It also taught me that the messengers don’t take kindly to being ignored.
I realize that I have come full circle back to the waters of the Pacific. I am blessed to live close to the water and to be able to walk down to it whenever the mood suits me. I often play my fiddle on the water’s edge and find myself in the company of harbor seals, bald eagles and great blue herons. I feel the sun on my face, the wind in my hair and the magick that is all around me. Just as when I was a small child, the water brings me comfort. I experience the elements as sand, wind, sun and salt water, only now I understand what they mean and my connection to them. I am also surrounded by great people who understand as well.
I have met many people over the last 20 years who can be described as “natural witches.” They draw their energy directly from nature, work with herbs and stones for healing and are attuned to the cycles of the earth. Their mysteries come to them directly from nature, and their magick has an organic feel to it. They may or may not have had formal training, but no matter what their experiences, there is something special about them.
My grandmother, a Scorpio, was such a woman, although I don’t think she would have taken kindly to being called a witch; then again, I could be wrong. We never talked about it. She was by all accounts the original “wild woman” and certainly looked the part, with long raven hair cascading around her face and shoulders, reflecting red in the sunlight as she stood in the desert greeting the rising sun. Well into her 60s, she would wander the desert alone in search of stones, herbs and adventure. She lived on her own terms, not giving a rat’s butt what anyone else thought about her, and preferred the company of the earth and its creatures to that of most people. When she did choose the company of others, they were always artists, writers, musicians and other Bohemian types. My mother, in bouts of exasperation with the wild and difficult child I was, often said, “You’re just like your grandmother.” Writer Earl Stanley Gardener wrote a piece about her entitled “The Desert Nightingale.” He knew she was special.
I wish I had been able to recognize and appreciate the magick in her. By the time I grew into an adult and began to understand, she was gone. But her spirit remains in the mountains, desert and ocean, and in me.
How does a woman with a legacy of wildness, whose spirituality is explicitly tied to nature, survive living in an apartment in town? It has been challenging, but it has expanded me.
Six years ago, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and attended my first indoor circles, I was shocked to find that many groups here held rituals indoors. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could connect with the elements or the gods in a building.
I got over it after experiencing my first winter here. It’s all very well and good to be outdoors, but if your fellow participants are getting pelted with freezing rain, with soaking wet feet in the dark of night, they’re going to be distracted. I work alone and in small circles outside whenever I get the chance, even in crappy weather, but for larger, public events it’s easier to be indoors.
It’s much simpler than I thought to connect to the elements while standing inside a building. Going on a simple guided meditation can connect me to the earth, feeling its coolness, inhaling its heady scent of decomposing leaves and pine needles and reveling in the feeling of fertility. With a little work, something as insubstantial as a few two-by-fours and some shingles isn’t a barrier. If I’m in the proper state of consciousness, it doesn’t even seem to exist.
Even living in a city, wilderness is all around. Wilderness exists at the edge of the water, in a local park or even under a tree in a backyard. I have seen the fey dancing in a hanging basket of flowers on a patio in an apartment complex. The Cascade and Olympic Mountains are a short drive, in a car or on the bus. In a little over two hours, I can be standing on the beach looking out at the vast wilderness that is the Pacific Ocean or across the mountains harvesting sage in the desert.
I have experienced and learned much in the last 20 years from many different sources, but the times in my life spent in direct connection to nature, to the gods, to all this is, without religious structure or human-imposed limitations, have been the most powerful times in my life.
Every place in nature, and in pockets of nature in the city, is sacred. Each place has its own energy, song and spirit guides. Go on… take a walk on the wild side and see where that journey takes you.