It had taken a long time to get to sleep in the thick forest just a few miles from home but the knowledge of the many wild fires burning all around us these last three weeks left me uneasy. What was that light flickering in the trees, the moon or the approach of the fire? As the night cooled and the wind dropped I drifted into dreamland with the horses moving reassuringly nearby, tethered in the trees.
We climbed and rode intermittently with the rest of the group following on foot. Leaving behind the smoke in the valley, leaving behind the anxiety of the fires and the storm that flattened so many trees just days before as my people ran before them seeking the safety of open space.
Leaving behind the months of preparation for this experience for which we can no longer prepare, for we are here.
That is the first thing I see when I open my eyes. Not green anything just green. It confuses me a little because I have my head under my buffalo robe and it is brown. When I peek out of the warm furs I see that it is the bright green grass glowing in morning sunlight that penetrated the skin in front of my face.
We are happy, perhaps gloriously happy. The next push over the scree pass will set us up at our first base camp that we will come to call home.
Preparing the trail for the horses I move rocks and create some steps where the trail has narrowed and broken away. We lead them across one by one, rear hooves knocking scree that slides down into the basin. All is well.
A huge smoke plume fills the afternoon sky to the north and as the evening air cools at dusk it colors the entire northern sky a muddy grey.
The mosquitos are out. I make my bed across the meadow from the rest of the group. They are laughing and talking loudly and having fun. I am glad for them but I want peace. Here is my holy land and I want to listen. Will she sing to me in the silence of darkness?
I awaken in the blue hour to the hum. I match the tone and fall back to sleep snuggled down in the buffalo hair away from the separate and distinct whine of mosquitos.
We circle in the group shelter. A question is posed by a young man of the clan, “Do we come here to this pristine and fragile environment to just take? What do we have to give?”
Everyone speaks. Everyone has a slightly different intention but in wholeness we are one.
To kill or not to kill?
To see direct impact on the land or to recognize indirect impact in our daily civilized lives?
To share thoughts and emotions or to sit quietly alone with them?
This land, this world away from the madness brings up so much uncertainty, deep questioning and introspection.
We act like society’s refugees. We are in shock, suddenly unable to function in this new land.
Have patience, it will come.
I sing to the moon as she arrives pregnant and glowing.
Horses bear us back up to main camp, people are sewing or eating, The sun shines down through the hazy air burning our thighs and shoulders. We are still an island in a sea of smoke.
The occasional plane or helicopter reminds us that another world exists down there in the smoke, here we feel like we are in a fantasy novel filled with mythic beings, heroes and demons, wizards and goblins, giants and elves while the lower world burns.
This high country is not a place for people to live. To journey through, to hunt, to pray on the bare windy mountain tops closer to the Gods, yes, but not to live. The river valleys are for the people to live, where the roots and the berries, the fish and the deer are more abundant. What have we done? Forgive us, what have we done?
It seems there are some clouds now and not just smoke although it’s hard to tell. They are coming from the southeast but still it’s calm and warm down here on earth.
This last week has felt eternal and I know this next day will bring another eternity as I rest upon this giant flat boulder with nothing more than a small gourd cup, my clothes and bedding, pencil, journal and unquiet mind. Perhaps I will find peace.
As I start to go to sleep the first patter of rain begins. With slight trepidation I lie awake waiting to see what blows but thank you Spirits, the rain is gentle and steady for most of the night. My shelter remains fairly dry with just an occasional spatter that sprays in upon my face.
The rain continues calmly. Exactly what we need to settle the smoke and damp back the fires. I heard a few rumblings in the heavens but it seems that lightning was sparse.
At some point soon I hope for a lull in which to check on the others and see how the hung food has fared.
The tall young man who looks like an angel went out on his solo last night, I hope he stayed dry.
I hear horses whinnying so I know they are still in the valley.
The rain ceases mid morning, muddy tracks coming down from the pass tell me the ‘angel’ has arrived. Cold, wet and a little scared after a night alone in the storm without much cover except his blanket and clothes.
The sky opens with a fork of fire followed by crashing thunder. The storm is instantly upon us.
The slow patter of rain….Minutes later another rumble though this time it comes from the mountain on the other side of the valley and with a great tearing, the rocks come shearing from the face of the cliff and tumble to the floor below, my pounding heart in unison.
Ah, raw nature from which we cannot hide. My frail body finds comfort in my bed of soft needles below, the skins and furs of animals past and the cover of this rough, quick shelter from the skeleton bones of larch and the living, spreading branches of spruce.
We are never safe.
No we are never safe. At any moment the Earth can rent and open and cast us to her belly’s depths. The ground can shake and the winds can rip, uprooting mighty trees that crush us as we run or sleep. The heavens can open with fire or flood, burn us quickly or slowly, drown us or smash us with instant mercy. The sun can dry and scorch, the ice and snow with silent numbing fingers suck away our feeble warmth.
No, we are never safe but still we try to tame this world in which we live. When the jaws of all big predators have fallen to dust, the great trees slain and hewn and reassembled into boxes we call houses, the Earth’s very innards removed and re-forged into steel and concrete, still we will not be safe. Instead I ask the grace and mercy of this living wonder to grant me another day in paradise.
I jump on the spotted horse and ride her to the pass.
Smokeless hills and valleys.
I meet at the drinking hole by chance one of my young friends, a girl from England who could easily pass for my daughter. We are drawn there simply by thirst. We sit by the water for a long time, sipping periodically, talking and watching the travesty of a hapless ant that gets ship wreaked on a rocky island in the middle of the stream. I think about how rarely I would take the time in my ‘normal’ life to watch such a thing for so long, being always driven by doing.
We circle at breakfast and lay out an offering to the land that has held us. It is beautiful. We circle on the knoll and we sing our thanks. We cry our gratefulness. We touch the edges of wholeness, of who we are, who we long to be.
Everyone packed, we climb, painfully slowly to the ridge, adjusting and re-tying the horse packs a dozen times.
It frustrates and exhausts me. We make few miles with the heavy loads and camp not far away.
Three drops of rain keep me awake and planning in the night. It is so different to camp this way as we are so completely in and with nature, we are forced to become aware of every change and nuance in the weather. Carelessness is vastly costly.
Fortune offers us another dry day to move and arrival at the new camp goes smoothly enough.
In spite of our fatigue a new shelter is erected for peaceful minds.
We speak of diminishing food supplies that are scantily supplemented from the land. We cannot go on long this way. We all recognize the privilege that gives us choices and once more touch the edges of true reality for the nature of being.
We eat the food we brought and add berries and mushrooms that we find.
We eat dried deer meat, roots of camas, balsam seeds, wild rice and dried mollusks from the distant ocean. Our bodies cry for salt and fat. The night clears again to stars and cold air. I sleep warm in the buffalo fur.
We catch a couple more fish but none on my hook. Despondency. How can I live in this world?
How can I live in the world in which I know how to eat when I see its monumental cost?
I hope and believe though that every one of us will carry some Earth magic that has germinated within during these weeks untainted by blatant civilization. How could it not be so? For three weeks we have lain upon her breast, sheltered by the trees and fed by the clean, pure gifts of mountain spring, flesh, root and fruit of the wild. It is in us, nurturing our cells. The world may beckon us but we shall be forever changed.
Slept cold for the first time. Violent dreams… preparation for societal reintegration?
Part of me is ready to go and part has so found its rhythm here that I can’t imagine anything else.
Looking for horse tracks down the trail, did they leave the camp? No. I walk slowly back up, grazing on berries. There the horses stand upon a knoll.
Wind, grey sky rolling in, we delve into the boulder field to find shelter for one here, two there, out of the wind and rain.
I place myself beneath a rock looking down the valley that we shall walk tomorrow.
We circle and give thanks. We shed some tears. I am a little afraid. Who will I be back down there? Will I forget who I am on this windy ridge?
Two-leggeds. Beings of the fire, praying for the Earth from Smoky Mountain.
Excerpted from Smoky Mountain Project Journal 2014. Used with permission.