homestead story

This morning I arose at dawn to dance. Its a ritual I began over a year ago, just before we moved into our new home. Inspired by a workshop on Celtic Shamanism led by Tom Cowan ( http://riverdrum.com ), my dance has not only provided me with spiritual sustenance I’ve craved but also an opportunity to develop a sacred relationship with the countryside that surrounds our home. Today my experience of dance was changed forever by a spirit who answered a question that on the face of it was banal. For the first time I have truly danced in conversation with the land because of issues surrounding some raspberry cane we dragged home.

It started with a citation from the local Fire Marshall: “too many weeds, too much dry brush. Move it in two weeks or you’ll be fined.” After living in tiny apartments for decades the temptation to collect stuff had overtaken us. With an acre of land we can drag whatever we want back to our place, try to use it and then abandon it. Despite our intention to treat our homestead as sacred and conscious the seduction of creating a sense of prosperity by collecting crap eventually won out. Not a great start when one of your neighbors is protected watershed and you chose your home in part for its proximity to a wildlife sanctuary.

My wife Terry was charmed by the tan bundles of raspberry cane that pepper the hillside farms near our home. After each harvest they appear arranged in picturesque hourglass bundles to be taken to the dump or the fire heap. She talked a farmer into letting us haul some back to our property. She thought of the art she would make, I imagined an old-world wattle fence to keep the neighborhood cats from using our new garden bed as a litter box. Art and gardening – of course it was meant to be.

I discovered the cane’s tiny thorns while loading it into the bed of our truck. Not big enough to penetrate my leather gloves they only made it a little painful to handle. Now I know why they call it “rasp-berry!” Maybe Terry couldn’t use it for art but it would be all the more effective a fence because of the thorns. Then we discovered their stiffness could not be overcome to weave an adequate wattle. Terry sat for hours at a stretch, grinding thorns into her fingers as she tried to make the cane pliable. After a few days and only a few feet of fence we called it quits. Now the picturesque bundles were thousands of slender pin covered corpses that somebody some day would have to dispose of. Still, even if we couldn’t find a use for our cane it was cool that it was stacked on Our Land. We had Old-World Natural Stuff!

We spent the first six months in our new home removing Other Peoples Stuff. Their Stuff was Crap To Be Hauled Away. We dragged car parts, an entire bathroom, rotted drywall and mounds of broken glass into a Winnebago sized dumpster. Terry raked up tiny piles of Sharp Toxic Crap, painstakingly making sure the deadliest fragments would be gone before our son learned to walk. The stuff we brought home and abandoned was different. Not only was it Our Stuff but it was Natural Stuff. We like Natural Stuff, thats another reason we moved to the country: there’s more Natural Stuff lying around.

We still have a pile of Other Peoples Stuff. Its not Crap because we call it our “Re-Use Pile”. Someday we’ll find a Re-Use for that corrugated tin and rusty fence. The drainage pipe is iron, we could Re-Use it in a water feature. Some of the stuff Other People leave behind is Not Crap when you Re-Use.

Its become apparent that whatever we bring to our new home takes on a life of its own. Before I knew it our cane was a thriving village of birds, bugs and rodents. Hopping through the thorns, tiny brown Bushtits happily chattered at the wonderful new environment we’d made for them. What if they returned every year to search for their pile of cane to raise a family in? We could never move this Natural Stuff! Should I plan to replenish the cane every year? I began walking gingerly by Caneville so as not to disturb the villagers.

They moved on as spring ended, just in time for the fire marshal to site our property for too much Dry Natural Crap laying about. I was relieved. Finally, an excuse to pack up Caneville and take it to the dump. We’d neglected to burn it when we could, still clinging to the idea it might be Useful Stuff instead of Crap To Be Hauled Away. At least then we would have turned it into mulch-able ash and charcoal. There was just too much for us to compost with all the other dry brush on the land. Thankfully the local landfill is a leader in tranforming green waste into rich soil. I’d pay about 40$ to take it there and in a year or so I’ll pay another 30$ to haul it back here in the form of organic mulch. My green conscience was appeased while my pocketbook did penance. I put on a thick long sleeved shirt and pulled the truck up.

Making all the brutish noises you’re supposed to make when moving huge piles of brush, I slammed down my steel rake loudly so as to frighten any inhabitants into moving on. I didn’t like getting rid of Natural Stuff, but its time had come. “It can be satisfying taking responsibility for Your Own Crap,” I thought as I swung my heavey steel rake like an executioners ax. That was when I saw the kittens.

Their Calico mother had run by just a few minutes before. She sometimes raided our compost for scraps so I wasn’t surprised to see her – though she acted strangely reluctant to run away from me. She had four tiny kittens, eyes open but perfectly still to avoid detection: one gray, two orange, and one calico. After pulling back a large pile of prickly cane bodies with the rake I uncovered their home: a hidden cave with some old stumps as a supporting wall. They wouldn’t look at me, instead huddling together pretending they or I didn’t exist. I stopped my rake mid-stroke. I would have killed at least one of them if I’d struck again. The demolition of Caneville was temporarily stayed.

After I backed off Calico Mom returned to hover nearby, patiently waiting for the right moment to move her little ones. When I checked back an hour later only an orange tabby was left. It sat immobile, face pressed in between two stumps awaiting rescue from exposure – gone by dusk. She moved them only twenty feet away, finding a new cave in the Re-Use pile.

We’ve taken to feeding her, hoping we’ll eventually be able to catch and find homes for the kittens.They’ll all have to be introduced to humans, removed from the land and fixed but for now there’s time for them to enjoy their mothers milk. Of course this means we can’t go near the Re-Use pile, as it has now become Feral Kitty Habitat. The cane I brought home to repel cats had instead provided Ideal Kitty Breeding Habitat!

Thats an interesting word Habitat. I always thought it meant a naturally occurring environment that attracted Natural Stuff. It turns out Crap, Stuff, Natural Stuff, Our Stuff and Other Peoples Stuff is actually all Habitat. Everything we make, drag home or just rearrange becomes Habitat. Its easier to see this when you live in the country and have room to leave stuff laying around for a few months.

For a while the overturned horse trough was a breeding ground for black widows and other insects. Then I turned it over and made it a water repository for the coastal fog that sated the morning birds. Our open compost pile has attracted dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and probably a few other large mammals I haven’t named. One of the rabbits lived in the straw pile beside the the compost for a while. More Habitat. Maybe the presence of the kittens and rabbits are why that fledgling hawk was hanging around squawking like a parrot with emphysema, not to mention the two barn owls that showed up every night by the tree above the brush piles. Predatory Habitat.

Water is an incredible maker of Habitat. A good bit of the water from our well goes to the 30 foot timber bamboo we’re growing to hide the neighbors double-wide trailer. Bamboo loves water so every morning I turn part of our parking area into a creek. A forest of plants grew up around the bamboo. The smaller birds depend on the water and bugs that are attracted there. When I shut down the stream I always flush a few, busily cleaning themselves amidst the weeds that crave water. Its also attracted rabbits, beetles and the odd feral kitty momma. We decided to weed the bamboo (AKA destroy Tiny Bird Habitat) to mulch it. Now those stacks of weeds are attracting their own crew of inhabitants while the birds make due with the bamboo until the weeds come back. It seems that the longer we’re here the more Our Stuff has a chance to become Integral Habitat.

The word “Habitat” was floating around in my mind for weeks before I decided to use a primary tool of shamanism, the Shamanic Journey, to find out more about it. Both Terry and I are trained in several different ways to visit the spirits of a place or other helpful spirits to receive guidance on important matters. By the time I usually get around to remembering to journey on an important issue I’ve been banging my head against a wall for some time, this was no exception. I took advantage of the quiet left by Terrys trip to visit a friend to sit beneath some trees, drum and journey to an ancestor spirit who has been helping me for many years.
“I need to understand Habitat, what does it really mean? I feel like there is something deeper I’m not getting about it.”

I almost always meet her by an ocean shore in the lower world, a place in the spirit world accessible by journeying down through entry points we use in the natural world. She looked at me and smiled brightly. Her appearance changes depending upon the seasons, the days weather, her mood, and sometimes even the questions I bring. Today she was young and mischievous. Without a word she swept me up and guided me deeper into the earth to talk to a spirit of the land.

Through the darkness I saw a grandmother in soft clothes colored like Autumn. She was smiling and gathering, gathering, gathering. When her arms were full of earth, flowers, food and tall grass she spun around and released light out into the world. Again and again she repeated this process – gathering and releasing, gathering and releasing. I could feel my mind begin to open to what she was trying to tell me. Sometimes I have to wait and let the energy of a journey sink in before I can receive its message. Darkness cleared around her when she said to me “Habitat is a conversation. You want responses like ‘Yes’, ‘More’, and ‘Thank You’.'”

She was receiving and giving over and over again because that is the nature of the land, it is always receiving and giving. When we create habitat we join in that process. We had been involved in a conversation since we first arrived here. The conversation goes on while we sleep, leave for a few days, or make brutish noises and slam metal things about. Its one that will continue on long after we’re gone.

My thinking on Habitat was totally turned around. Habitat is not a thing but a process – a Conversation. When we participate in the Habitat Conversation we hope the land will say “Yes, more please and thank you.” I thanked her and my teacher and returned to the quiet of the trees.

I can think about what I bring to our land in terms of the response I might get. How will the land feel about us bringing in additional rocks? Will it respond with lizards or black widows? Will a new pond say dead floating bugs, more raccoons or louder frogs? Of course the real learning comes with unexpected answers like “Kittens”, the opposite answer I’d wanted. I wonder if I journey to the land if it will tell me what the response might be to something I’ve got planned? It will be delightful to visit her again, she was so beautiful.

The conversation I’ve been invited to become aware of is not limited to stuff. When I walk the land, weed our garden or turn on water I’m in the Habitat Conversation. This morning I started to dance and realized my dance was the dance of Receiving and Giving. Breath in and move, breath out and release. Receive and give, receive and give. I recalled her movements and began to mimic them. It felt so wonderful. I have a feeling that her dance will teach me to hear the Habitat Conversation with a little more clarity, and perhaps even know how to be a more thoughtful and exciting participant. Of course no ideas really matter when you’re completely lost in a wonderful conversation, as I was this morning at dawn.

Related Links:
Learn To Journey: The Foundation For Shamanic Studies (FSS) shamanism.org
Tom Cowans Website: River Drum riverdrum.com
My Blog Journal For My Dawn Dance Practice: www.dawndance.blogspot.com

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