One winter I spent lying in bed, suffering from the darkest episode of depression in my life. For months, I was unable to work, read, or eat much of anything. I managed to avoid almost all contact with the outside world.
The only relief I experienced, if you can call it that, was looking at the tree outside my third-story window. It felt as if that tree were my only friend, though in fact dear friends housed and looked after me. It didn’t matter. Only the tree could reach me. Strange to put into words, but true nonetheless.
I stared into nothingness as the tree’s gray bark shone with light on bright sunny days. On windless cold days, I watched as birds hopped about on elegant branches. I cheered inwardly as I watched her bare limbs whip about on blustery days. Squirrels visited and left. Light dimmed and shadows grew long, marking the passage of another day. Stars decorated the tree’s branches in the gathering darkness of night. Still I kept vigil, waiting and watching, for what I knew not.
All I knew was that I loved this tree, and for a season it was my family. The tree reflected both how I felt and how I hoped to feel: rooted in the earth, exposed to the elements, arms outstretched, silently petitioning the heavens with prayers for new life.
I told myself that when spring came to visit my tree it would also visit me. I waited. I watched from my perch as the other trees in my neighborhood began to show tender green shoots of new life, yet my tree remained unchanged. I liked that my tree remained in winter, even as spring returned to the rest of the earth. “I need more time,” I told myself.
Then, one morning, I returned home from my neighborhood coffee shop to find my beloved tree lying across the road. Where there was a towering tree, now a crater in the earth and roots atop soil. Absence marked the spot where once there was presence.
I stood over the crater where just an hour ago the massive tree stood, staring in disbelief. The tree, my dear silent friend, was dead. I felt as if I had been slapped. As I peered into the empty hole, a thought formed in my mind: “What about me?” For a moment, terror gripped me.
Then I started laughing. I laughed so hard, so long, that tears ran down my face and I doubled over, holding my stomach. The group gathered around the tree probably thought I was crying, overcome with grief, but I sure as hell wasn’t.
Joy ripped through me with the sudden realization that I—unlike my tree—was alive. Like it or not, somehow I had survived the winter. Now, instead of immersion in dark heaviness, I was contemplating the void from a new vantage point. I was no longer in the hole, but standing on solid ground.
When did I start being able to dress and walk uphill five blocks to the coffee shop? How did I overlook the growing divide between story and reality? My story of the tree bound me to a past that was no longer present. My eyes, as if blinded by dazzling light, overlooked the small daily changes that were accumulating and creating new ground under my feet.
It took the death of a towering tree to restore me to sanity, a hole of absence to awaken me. I had been clinging to a story for dear life, only to discover that the story was holding me back from life.
That day of tree fall, unbeknownst to me, was a preparation for a day that would come several years later: the moment the grand tree of my religious tradition, also beloved, fell over dead.
It took the better part of a decade for me to begin formulating answers to the questions raised when that ancient tree fell to the ground, dead and devoid of life. For years I gazed into the crater and felt a need to fill it.
After a dogged and exhaustive search for a new path, I finally gave up. Six months into our move from Austin, Texas, to a home situated on 14 acres near Eugene, Oregon, I found myself practicing a wilderness spirituality based not on sacred text and inherited rituals, but on the ground beneath my feet.
As long as I looked somewhere else, always for a way more ancient or established than the present moment, I missed the path hiding right here in the plain light of day, as common and valuable as the dirt. I learned to be obedient to joy: to notice what drew my attention, awakened in me a childlike sense of awe, or just plain felt like fun.
I picked wild blackberries, canned cases of apple butter, and began to keep chickens and bees. As one raised Catholic, trained in theology at Yale, exploring what it meant to practice a pathless spirituality rooted in the liturgy of the natural world felt at once invigorating, infuriating, and sometimes frightening.
One our two beehives did not survive its first winter and I had to find a way to explain the loss to my 7-year-old-son.
Ian and I had spent many hours watching “bee tv,” sitting on cool green grass under the shade of a nearby apple tree. Daily, we visited to see the bees dance and loop in the air before us, counting the bees arriving with bright pollen in their rear saddlebags to feed unseen brood (baby bees) inside. These were my gentle bees, my Italian bees, golden and mellow, prone to taking naps in the afternoon.
To ritualize our grief over the loss of the colony, I suggested putting a black cloth on the hive. The tradition of “telling the bees,” as it is called, dates back many years, though as with so many folk traditions, it is hard to say how long or how widely it was practiced. My curiosity about beekeeping practices before the advent of commercial beekeeping led me to an article in the American Bee Journal dating back to the 1860s. It speaks of the tradition of “telling the bees” in this way:
Bees occupy a prominent and important position in the household of Bretagne [France], where they are regarded and treated as members of the family. All interesting occurrences affecting the welfare of the family are formally announced to them.[i]
When a child was born, the father and the eldest son put on their Sunday best to announce the “glad tidings, and [decorate] each hive with a scarlet scarf.” So, too, engagements and weddings were announced, a crimson cloth placed upon each hive to mark the wedding day. “Every death is announced, by a messenger arrayed in black” and the hives were “immediately invested in crape,” which remained on the beehives for as long as the family was in mourning.
Back then, and certainly in the centuries before, honeybees were part of the fabric of daily life. Most everyone kept bees before sugar was readily available, and if they did not, they had a neighbor who did. The colored cloths laid upon each hive recall the truth that the life of the human family and the life of honeybees are interwoven into an ever-changing, yet enduring, whole.
Ian, however, was having none of it: too creepy.
Instead, he wanted simply to sit before the remaining hive and count the bees as they alighted on the landing board with bright yellow, orange, and white pollen on the rear of their legs.
And so we returned to our daily practice of sitting before the hives, immersed in the lively dance and intoxicating hum of the bees in our midst, even as one hive stood empty next to its twin, still dancing and overflowing with life.
“Indigenous” means, “sprung from the Earth.” The word “human” is etymologically rooted in the word “humus,” which is the living part of the soil.
You don’t have to be a Native American to have an “indigenous soul” to borrow a term from the Mayan shaman, Martin Prechtel. Shamanism is not just the province of native peoples because we, too, stand on and have been nourished by the same earth for the whole of our lives.
The indigenous soul is not going anywhere, any more than the ground is going to leave our feet. But how to speak our “native” language once again, how to become fluent in the wordless language that weaves the natural world together into a single cloth—this is the task before us.
I discovered that this isn’t as daunting as it sounds, so long as you don’t mind darkness.
The task is primarily one of re-membering ourselves into wholeness and recovering the buried wisdom waiting for us beneath the foundation of school, temple, and high-rise. The journey after “the fall” of our traditions is one of homecoming, of reclaiming our home in soil and soul, of rediscovering our proper place in kinship with the whole of Creation.
The mind “overlooks” the Earth, the body, and the soul only all of the time. The mind, our “overseer” consciousness, has a nasty habit of valuing words above all else, calling “dumb” all that does not speak in the language of words.
Look around you, at this mind-made world of strip malls, strip clubs, and strip mining. Look around at what we have created with millions of years of stored sunlight at our disposal. Now tell me which lifeform is the “dumb” one.
We do not understand the body language of our times: glass screens, smoke screens, “security” walls, flood and fire, torrents of nonsensical words loosed from their roots, a fevered planet, and lives lived perpetually out-of-breath, or with the anxious “held”-breath of hell.
We who are formed by the walls of denomination and the halls of “higher” education, we who are informed by consuming text on screens or the sacred texts of old, stand blinking, uncomprehending, in the midst of the colony collapse of this stinging, honey-making commercial enterprise we call our world.
The practice of shamanism is a way of bringing the mind back to Earth, back to the body, and back to the soul to retrieve the guidance and information lurking just beneath the surface of our lives in the dark and subconscious realms of the heart.
The mind, out of its depth and uncomfortable in the dark, objects to shamanism as a foreign, exotic, even dangerous “source” of knowledge: it is either all made up, the province of New Age hucksters, the product of demonic forces, or the exclusive domain of native peoples.
“Not for me,” the mind crosses its arms and looks down upon the wordless wisdom and subterranean language of the soul. “Nothing here.”
On a beautiful fall morning, I hurry through high grass wet with dew to sit before our twin beehives. I plan to drink coffee at the hives as the sun rouses the bees with its beams of warmth and light.
As the summer wore on and the lush green expanses of June gave way to the dry hayfields of August, Ian and I had shorter visits to the hives. We were routinely chased off within minutes of arrival by a strong buzzing sound near our ears—the signal from the guard bees that it was time to move along. The days got busier in the human colony as well, and soon we were caught up in a whirl of back-to-school activity and celebrations marking the remaining dry days of summer before the returning rains.
When I arrive at our two beehives nestled in a windbreak of towering Douglass Firs, my heart sinks. All is quiet, unnaturally still. The birds abruptly cut off their morning welcoming songs at my approach. “It’s too early for the bees to be flying,” I say to myself as I sit down on the ground to await a sign of life.
But none comes. The hives, soon bathed in sunlight, show no signs of activity.
Something breaks inside of me. A chasm opens up that is far larger than any depression, the loss of any tradition, or any grief I’ve ever known.
What do I tell my son? What can I show him that is a fitting, true, and beautiful response to the death of the natural world commencing all around us?
Nothing. Not a damn thing.
To place a black cloth on a living hive to mark the death of a loved one is an act of poetry, a statement of hope, an affirmation of continued connection to the larger fabric of Life.
But what does it mean to place a black cloth on a dead hive? What the fuck does it mean to “tell the bees” in this age of colony collapse?
What do we do now that the honeybees—primal first words, symbols of soul, guardians of Life—are dying?
A black cloth on a hive doesn’t capture the nature of the loss—the gaping chasm with which we are confronted in these times—quite as well as refusing to fill the void left by absence.
“What in the hell am I doing?” my mind hisses as I sit outside in the rain, meditating on the silent, dark emptiness of the two dead bee hives before me. I have no idea.
By bringing my attention to this absence, my hope is to learn an unconditional love for the honeybee and her living poetry, even here, in the midst of her message of darkness and death.
The unwritten, unspoken words of life—this is what I stalk in the bee yard. Words, used so often as killing tools in the war on life, no longer fulfill or feed me. Instead, round resonance and fruitful presence—muddy ground, amber leaves, unsheltered time in the natural world—these are the living words for which I hunger.
Despite myself, for my son, I spend the winter carrying out seated meditations in front of my empty bee hives.
I seek to remain present while washing dishes and folding clothes. I practice the discipline of returning home to my senses by smelling the damp earth or listening to the sounds of tree frogs instead of being wholly captivated by my chattering mind. My rituals become the work of caring for bodies and critters, my devotion expressed through deep listening to the silent music of Life, a listening behind and under and beyond words.
Instead of a learning, I am apprenticing in a holy undoing, not altogether unlike the one underway in the world all around us. I willfully embark on this spiritual journey that is as darkness to my mind, and I believe that collectively we are also on an underworld journey of re-membering, of reclaiming lost wisdom and missing parts of ourselves.
But what about the bees? How can this possibly help? I have no idea. I can guarantee nothing with my actions, but can only hope to cultivate an attitude of soul. My being seems to know what to do, though my mind scoffs and scowls. Through my actions, I can become more human—nothing less, nothing more.
The practice, then, is one of spiritual wintertime: allowing the dark, guarding the emptiness, letting the land lie fallow.
A year later, that next fall, I attended a workshop on shamanic journeying. In retrospect, my work with the bees and grief in connection to the natural world was a perfect training ground for the practice of shamanism. The process of unlearning my heady wordiness so that a new, extremely old language could take root in me felt frustratingly slow and futile, but what choice did I have? I inched my way along in the dark, taking first one step, then the next, then the next.
On my own, I began donning a headset to listen to a drumbeat at a frequency long used by indigenous peoples, a frequency that is said to entrain the right and left hemispheres of the brain. My “journeys” into the spirit world fed me on a profound level and helped me get through a deeply dark, yet richly productive, time of my life.
Not that you were ever going to hear about any of this, because I had every intention of taking my secret with me to the grave. Why jeopardize a lifetime of work in matters of spirit— spending months in silence in a desert monastery, working as a University chaplain, acting as a spiritual director for a death row inmate— by coming out as a shamanic practitioner?
A couple of years passed, and In March of 2016, I asked a friend in Toronto, a classmate of mine from divinity school, if I might do a journey for her just to see if I could do it. The journey was very much like a fable, starting with a white-crowned eagle picking her up and circling a tree high atop a mountain peak in the Himalayas. The eagle circled for what seemed like an eternity, probably 5 minutes of a 15 minute journey.
When the eagle finally landed on the tree top and the journey commenced, it became clear that what I was seeing was a metaphor for my friend’s journey as a soul, her love of the unitive dimension of life, her talent for seeing the “big picture” from above, and the difficulty of learning how to use her wings to get down to earth and master the so-called ordinary aspects of life such as building a suitable nest for herself out of the available materials and hunting for food that would sustain her body and soul.
“You know my twin is in Tibet right now, right?” she asked me, but no, I didn’t know that. We didn’t think much more of it because soon we were busy interpreting the symbolic messages of the journey. She was taken with the experience, told several friends about it, and within the week I was doing journeys for others thousands of miles away.
I wasn’t convinced, however, that this was my calling. There was entirely too much to lose in terms of credibility and I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing when I journeyed for others. It always seemed to have something to do with spirituality and had important messages for each person, but whatever: I’m a writer and not a crazy person, dammit. I decided on my 49th birthday, Good Friday, to close the door on shamanism.
Then two days later, Easter Sunday, I received an email from my friend’s twin, a woman I had never met, telling me that while she stood atop a mountain in Nepal at the Peace Pagoda two weeks before, a white-headed eagle circled and circled above her. She asked her friend, a Tibetan, what the eagle circling might mean, but her friend had no idea.
“It’s a sign,” the twin sister said “but I don’t know of what.”
Signs and wonders draw the crowds and hold the attention of the world, as has ever been the case. The miracles belong now to technology: bees mailed in packages, food awaiting us in the aisles of grocery stores, text consumed on screens without end.
Without a pause in the narrative, without the darkened spaces of silence, without the still fields of nature, the human mind and its creations cannot help but unravel the sacred cloth.
Whatever our achievements and our vices, however, the enduring miracle, the real miracle, is Life.
Our gift in return—a miracle in its own right— is to embrace this stinging honeyed existence and weave from its many dark threads a heart as vast as the night sky. This is a learning, and a work, that cannot be had in the company of the crowd.
In our exile from soil and soul, we overlook the poetry of the honeybee—and of our own lives. We starve for meaning in a land of plenty, we lose ourselves in monocrops of busyness, we feed on artificial light and manufactured certitude.
The black cloth unravels, honeybees collapse and disappear into fields of forgetfulness, and still we reform the rotting trees, still we cling to the old traditions, still we tell the bees.
But as we sleep, Life holds vigil for us in the open fields of winter. There is a whole logic, an encompassing beauty to our days, though we perceive it not.
Empty hives populate a cold and inhospitable landscape, giving quiet shelter to the possibility of emergence—the birth—of something truly new under the sun. These darkened hives are terrestrial stars, constellations to guide us, a frightened and rootless people, on the journey home.
Perhaps Life, like the honeybee, will wait a little while longer. Life does not speak in words, nor respond to words. Life speaks in a holy different way.
But until we notice, until we soften into receptivity and listening, until we also grow silent and still, it is of no use: there is no reaching us.
“Shaman” means “one who sees in the dark.”
In these times of climate chaos and cultural collapse, times bewildering and beyond the narrow scope of our modern minds, we would profit from learning to speak the language of symbol, soul, and Source once again. We need to embrace the darkness of unknowing, experiment, follow our hunches, and become as shamans, able to read the events of our lives as sacred texts in their own right.
First, there has to be empty space. It is The Nothing which gives birth to the many somethings. But the mind only “sees” or registers the somethings. The mind misses the creative Source, the substance of the No-thing, entirely.
In this fecund absence, in the hole where once there was a tree, in the heart broken wide open, lies the doorway to the Spirit world.
We haven’t a clue what’s going on, but that may not be a bad thing. We swim in a sea of darkness that hides just beneath the surface of our awareness, just beyond the sight of our eyes. Fearful as the mind gets when it is out of its depth, perhaps this isn’t a bad thing, either.
We are all connected by the sea of darkness that is the Unseen world. And it is this sea in which we swim each night to awaken refreshed, born anew for the day. To learn how to dive into these depths and return with pearls of wisdom—indeed, this may not be a bad thing, nor a terribly exotic thing.
In the darkness, in the watery depths of heart and soul, we know far more than we dream possible. We carry within us a wisdom far larger than our minds. Within the narrow shores of our daylight consciousness, we contain the vastness of our origins.
This much I know—and so can you.
[i] Bees in Bretagne, (France). (1867, April). American Bee Journal, 2(10), 190. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from http://bees.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=bees;idno=6366245_6486_003
Anna M. Alkin holds an M.A. in religion from Yale Divinity School. Her interest in spirituality, social justice, and the natural world has led her to work in Congress, spend four months on silent retreat in the Tucson desert, accompany a death row inmate to the end of his life, lead college students on multi-day pilgrimage experiences on the streets to learn from the homeless, and found LunaSol Farm on 14 acres just outside of Eugene, Oregon, where she and her family raise chickens, berries, and locally-adapted honeybees. She discovered shamanism more than a decade after leaving church and a career in ministry. In addition to beekeeping, boy-raising, and writing, Anna also serves as a shamanic spiritual guide for clients both near and far: www.gaiashamanism.com.