Reclaiming Our Birthright
Earth-Magick, Culture and Ritual
by Erik van Lennep
“Time is not a line/Leading ever farther from where we are/But fluid dreams and memories/Where ancestors and someday-children/Take us by the hand.” – From “Initiation I,” by Erik van Lennep, 1992
On a warm day in late September, I walked through the Vermont woods to arrive where 16-year old Nathan waited beside a beaver pond. “Are you ready?” I asked, and smiling with nervous excitement, he said he was.
Turning, I led him back into the woods, until we reached a natural gateway formed by two large paper birch trees flanking the path. At this point, I asked Nathan if he was certain he wanted to continue on, and he replied with a sober yes. “Good,” I said, “now take off all of your clothes and hand them to me.” As he did so, I said, “You now are nameless and homeless, and naked as you entered life, you shall remain empty. You have nothing but what you carry within you.”
Having grown up in a rural setting where swimsuits are generally considered superfluous, if not downright annoying, and being a child of the 1970s and ’80s, the requirement he disrobe was hardly as shocking for Nathan as it might have been for an urban youth. It did, however, place him immediately into a nonordinary state of awareness, a prerequisite for powerfully transformative experience. I have also discovered that full exposure of the skin heightens a person’s sensitivity to the surrounding environment: Each nuance of breeze registers upon the skin, and it becomes necessary to slow down and to pay close attention to the act of walking. Textures underfoot become more noticeable, as well as one’s passing through vegetation types, and the movement from sun to shadow. The feel of the surrounding landscape becomes a living presence in a way that simply does not ordinarily register while clothed. The symbolism of being ritually pared down to the basics was not lost upon Nathan either.
We hiked the remaining quarter of a mile to a campsite I had prepared for his coming-of-age ritual. Twice more along the way we stopped, and I again asked if he wanted to return home. After the third time, there would be no turning back. Each time, as he responded with increasing confidence that he wished to proceed, the nature of the walk became more demanding, until the last 100 yards where I led him blindfolded through heavy brush to the clearing where we would spend the next three days and nights.
Coming of age is marked by confusion, particularly within industrialized cultures such as that of the United States. This confusion is why traditional societies have always marked this major life transition with ceremonies and ritual. Ceremony calls attention to the importance of the event, celebrating it with community recognition and support, while ritual weaves the person and event into a fabric of meaning and tradition. Although our industrialized society has attempted to refocus its members on consumerism as a substitute for spirituality, the need for community, ceremony and ritual remains strong.
It was no surprise that Nathan found his sixteenth birthday marked by a sense of profound disappointment. In our society, there are momentous expectations focused around 16-year-olds. They are led to believe that new worlds will open before them, while they themselves feel they have arrived at adulthood. But usually the transition is marked by nothing more than a piece of paper certifying the capability and the right to drive a car, which in many cases the 16-year-old has been driving already. Certainly, a driver’s license heralds a new level of freedom and, we hope, responsibility, but it hardly provides the recognition required to celebrate a major life change. Nathan and I discussed this around the time of his birthday, and I mentioned to him that if he wanted to mark the occasion with something more meaningful, he and I could probably devise something appropriate.
About two months later, I had a series of dreams characterized by intense imagery, which I later realized were pieces of some sort of ritual. It felt as if they were being shown to me for some purpose beyond my own dream work. Subsequently, the images came with increasing frequency and clarity, until by early summer I was “dreaming” pieces of ritual as I hiked in the hills surrounding my village. When I became aware that these visions and dreams collectively represented a coming-of-age ritual, I knew that the ritual was meant for Nathan. I told him what had been happening and that I wanted to offer a ceremony to him as a gift, and he accepted.
In preparation, I showed him a basic breath meditation technique and gave him a series of individualized exercises to combine with the meditation, as well as a list of questions designed to inspire thought about where he fit into his community, his sense of responsibility toward the Earth and his own self-image. For the next 10 weeks, he worked with the exercises and questions he had been given.
Vermont is still one of the most rural of the lower 48 states. Populations of animals once thought to be locally extinct or greatly reduced, such as moose, coyotes and cougars, are actually increasing. However, it is primarily a landscape of small farms and biologically impoverished woodlot and forest regrowth. It hardly could be termed wilderness by today’s exacting standards.
Throughout the reforested hills, one comes across rusted barbed wire, stone walls, old cellar holes and the occasional relic of an old still or plough. A variety of conifers and hardwoods push through the debris of the last three centuries and deposit an ever-deepening carpet of leaves, which softly and slowly shrouds the evidence of abandoned agriculture until iron and steel implements become knit into the forest skeleton of glacial rocks and fallen tree trunks. Despite repeated attempts to reshape the landscape of Vermont to fit some more agriculturally or industrially productive model, the land and weather seem instead to reshape the people who come here. The magick and power of the Earth are very close to the surface.
It was through this landscape that we hiked to another beaver pond. The leaves were beginning to turn the flaming shades that make New England famous but had not yet begun to drop to the ground. For me, autumn is a time when the woods begin to hum with energy, peaking in early November, when the air is crackling with magick. The entire forest smells of summer’s sweet ripening, overlaid by the aroma of countless fungi. Nathan had selected the site for his ceremony, and a few days earlier as part of his “ordeal” carried in water, canvas tarps, a stack of cordwood and a number of melon-sized rocks for a sweat-lodge firepit. The morning we began, I arranged the camp, built a small sweat lodge and a somewhat larger sleeping lodge and screened the site with brush barriers jumbled into place to resemble natural blow-downs.
All of this preparation served to create a site that struck Nathan as new and unfamiliar when I removed his blindfold upon arrival. For the remainder of our stay, despite frosty mornings and one evening of drizzling rain, we were both naked, to continue the sense of being outside ordinary experience. By the end of our stay, we had both become so comfortable that it was equally startling to pull on clothing and cut off much of the contact between inner and outer environments.
Although I had initially described the ceremony we were beginning as a coming of age, I had begun to think of it in the terms of “bringing Nathan through” a transition between realities or worlds. It is difficult to say exactly where the pieces of ritual originated, and to a certain extent it does not matter, and I certainly did not question the process at the time. I worked with my own intuition, subconsciously assembling seemingly disparate pieces into a meaningful pattern. In retrospect, the pieces came from the six years I had known Nathan and his family, from a lifetime spent in the Eastern forests, from a long time study of European and other mythologies and folklore, from my own personal spiritual practices, from years of close work with Indigenous colleagues and friends and no doubt from the world of ancestors and the Earth Herself. I experienced the process as flowing and integrated and highly energizing. I opened myself to the inspiration fully and without question. I had a general sense of the order I wanted to follow, but many of the techniques I used to create transitions or to open doors of awareness occurred quite spontaneously and even astounded me at their effectiveness.
At times during the ritual, we would work at a particular exercise for a while with little result and then decide to move on to something else, as the approach was not working. During the night, I would then dream of a way to free the blocked energy and try the new method upon awakening to find it worked beautifully. By this point, Nathan and I had established such rapport with one another and the process that I would have been disappointed had the answer not come in the night.
The transition from childhood to manhood for Nathan was marked by discussion of responsibility and community, of family and self-image, of sexuality and spirit. The material we used to compose the three-day ritual was based upon universal practices (virtually all peoples on Earth have a sweat tradition somewhere in their history) and upon practices from Nathan’s own ethnic background, as far as he knew it. For some of the European Earth-centered ritual, we reached back to Ice Age symbolism and carried it through to its contemporary expression in the form of antler dances, which have been handed through European folk traditions in an unbroken chain. This unbroken chain is critical, because without cultural relevance ritual remains a superficial and rather alien exercise.
The first evening, Nathan became the fire keeper, and he began to consciously separate himself from his parents and his childhood. Because his parents were divorced, and because he had been having a great deal of trouble communicating with his father for some time, I “fathered” him that night by wrapping his shoulders in a blanket, holding him in my arms and telling him stories about my own childhood and adolescence.
Two days before we entered the woods, Nathan began a fruit and juice fast, and by the day we began, both he and I were on a juice and ginseng tea fast, which we maintained until the last night. The clarity brought about through fasting enabled us both to tune into subtle energies very easily. Working with breath meditation techniques for grounding and centering, I showed Nathan how to consciously pull Earth energy from the bedrock and up through his body and then reground it. Working with the exercises I had given him earlier, he channeled energy directly through his emotions, shifting from emotion to emotion at will. He was able to lean against a large pine and feel the energy coursing up and down beneath the bark, and we played games by passing energy back and forth between our palms.
In another part of my work with Nathan, I discussed sexuality. It seems important in these times of acute social and family dysfunction to prepare young people for the bewildering array of information, on-and-off relationships and poor communication surrounding them, and the intentional, subliminal attempts by Madison Avenue to confuse the areas of sexuality, consumerism, power and need. I wanted to address the fact that Nathan would be involved with others who might use sexuality as a manipulative tool. I explained to him that magick, Earth energy and sexual energy were all the same, and that with practice, a person could flow from one to the other at will. We talked about sex as a gift coming from Mother Earth, and a gift which two people bring together from their own places of joy, to share with one another. Although Nathan was inexperienced and my points were all theoretical for him at the time, I hoped that, later in life when he became sexually active, our conversation would come back to him and help him remain centered.
We talked also about how all life reflects itself in structure and intricacy throughout the levels of form and energy, from the atomic to the galactic. We used examples from Nathan’s upbringing on the land but examined them in the new light of Nature being magick and energy. I pulled back the top layers of leaf mulch to show Nathan the fungal hyphae – the network of white threads that constitute the true body of mushrooms and that serve to knit the forest ecosystem together through mycorhizzal connections between tree roots. We watched the beavers at dusk as they cut saplings down around our camp, and we marked the boundaries of our site by peeing on trees to keep raccoons and their ilk from raiding us.
We alternated between energy exercises and imagery, using dance and body painting to enact conscious transitions between points before and after becoming adult. At one point, Nathan was pulling energy directly from the Earth so quickly that his whole frame vibrated like a taut sail. At another time, I had him oil his entire body copiously and then go wait in the darkened sweat while meditating on his worst fears. Meanwhile I filled my hair with white clay and covered my body with black and red clay to become a monster. I shook the frame of the sweat and demanded he come out and face me. He chased me around and around the campsite while I jeered him for his timidity, and though he caught me several times, his oily body allowed me to slip out of his grasp. (Fear can be very elusive.) Finally, he covered his hands and arms with enough pine needles to wrestle me down and then dragged me into the pond, pushed me under and washed off the clay to unmask his fear and render it harmless.
At the end of our last day, I returned Nathan’s clothing to him and constructed a door-sized hoop of alder and oiled jute cord near the fire. Nathan put back on his clothing, which had been selected to represent portions of his childhood he would be leaving behind, and then stood by the fire. As he took each garment off again, he attached some qualities of his former self which he wished to grow beyond, and then consigned it to the fire. When he felt ready, I lit the hoop and pulled him through the flaming gateway into the adult world. I handed him a new set of clothes, which he decided to lay aside until the hike out, and we broke our fast together as brothers.
From the moment that Nathan stepped out of the woods, where his family and friends awaited him with a welcoming ceremony, he seemed different. He was far more self-assured, and his body language was more confident. His family and friends all commented upon the remarkable difference. For months afterward and even today, where previously he and his friends used to hang out in a fairly random arrangement of bodies and postures, his friends now cluster around him, as if oriented toward the warmth of a campfire. He tells me that he received compliments from a female friend in his high school as being one of the few males in their group who was in touch with his feelings.
On several occasions since that time, I have been with Nathan when he used the techniques he learned during his initiation to deal with an emotionally trying situation. Once when a mutual friend was slowly dying of cancer and we needed to be there for him in strength, I watched Nathan go outside on a bitter December night, ground himself and form a link between the Earth and stars until he was filled with clear energy. He came back inside and poured that energy into our friend, who visibly responded with renewed vigor for the next few hours.
Though for Nathan I was able to create a ritual that worked, there are a few fairly daunting obstacles to creating meaningful wilderness ritual in contemporary America. First, wilderness itself is in short supply, and by strict definition (that is, untouched by obvious human presence or activity) practically nonexistent. Second, for ritual to be meaningful it must not only contain recognizable symbolism that stirs the individual, but also that symbolism must be somehow culturally appropriate in order to have any deep meaning.
In addition, truly powerful ritual is not spontaneously created but must grow over time, as it is layered by repetition and cycles through generations. We are at a profound disadvantage in creating or finding such ritual in the industrialized world, particularly those of us in America who are descended from disjointed immigrant cultures. As if these issues were not sufficiently problematic, members of the dominant culture within industrialized society in the United States, primarily Euro-Americans, tend to carry a set of precepts about reality that create still more barriers between the individual and a rewarding expression of spirituality through ritual. A good place to begin the search for meaning and ceremony is an examination of our own cultural attitudes.
Here are a few attitudes which I have found necessary to revise in order to make room for spiritually fulfilling and Earth-focused ritual:
1. We assume wilderness does not include people. This attitude is a uniquely Western perspective based in large part upon (male) domination of “virginal” lands. It creates a perpetual separation between humanity and the rest of natural life, a system of law that does not recognize aboriginal tenure of wildlands and a philosophy that “improves” land by destroying it. Conversely, when we can see that the majority of human cultures have coexisted with wildlands, that traditional societies practice sustainable management and that the wilderness experienced by European explorers was simply land where other peoples implemented sophisticated wildlife and land management the Europeans did not understand, we can drop the mystique of the great uninhabited wilderness and begin to develop a more nurturing relationship between ourselves and the Earth, wherever we may live. Don’t wait for a trip to the Yukon or the Sierras to get in touch with your spirit. Go out in your yard and sit with the dandelions.
2. We assume that, when creating or recreating Earth-based rituals, it’s acceptable to appropriate bits and pieces from other cultures to assemble something new. This is a very touchy subject. Traditional peoples who have had virtually every other aspect of their lives appropriated as “resources” by industrialized society are tired of being mined for their rituals. At the same time, people who are still spiritually in touch with the Earth wish others would get the message and stop plundering the planet. As heirs to the cultural dismemberment that accompanies industrialization, many of us are aching to fill the spiritual void we feel. When we come into contact with traditions or imagery that suggest a stronger and mystical connection to the Earth, we are attracted and want them for ourselves. Many of us are so disenchanted or appalled by the direction our own society has taken we want to jump ship for a way of life that seems more in tune with our values.
The problem is that no matter how far we may run, we still carry with us most of our Westernized, urbanized, industrialized attitudes. Many such attitudes are problematic, such as the idea that if we see something we like, we can simply take it or buy it. We have also been conditioned to concentrate on the image or surface of what we encounter while ignoring the content, so when we encounter traditional ritual we feel that if we can somehow possess the trappings of ceremony we have the key to the door of spirituality. But spirit comes from within, and the material symbols that a people evolves to use in ritual are just that: symbols. They signify complex concepts that can only be understood by persons raised within the traditions to which they belong. Further, traditional Indigenous spirituality and ceremony are inseparable from culture and geography, since all have coevolved and are mutually reinforcing. In addition, Earth-based spirituality is by its very nature more visceral than conceptual. It cannot be analyzed; it must be felt. No matter how much we want it, no matter how much we are willing to pay, no matter how loudly we protest or how facile our justifications and denial, if it isn’t ours we cannot truly have it.
The idea of unequivocal inaccessibility is one that our cultural biases find extremely difficult to accept. It’s a mind-wrenching concept. Here is another one: In our lifetimes, we may not ever see the creation of ceremony, rituals and traditions that both belong to us and have a power and relevance equal to those of our Indigenous neighbors. However, if we start now our great-grandchildren may share a spiritual groundedness that approaches what we strive for. The lag comes from the time required to repeat and layer ceremony through many seasonal cycles and human generations before it truly roots itself as traditional ritual.
This is not to say that we cannot devise an entire constellation of personally fulfilling and spiritually engaging rituals right now. But which material we choose to work with makes a significant difference between deluding ourselves and disrespecting our neighbors on the one hand, and reconnecting with our own birthrights on the other. In my opinion, when we find ourselves attracted by Indigenous spiritual ways, the healthy attitude is one of inspiration, not emulation.
3. We assume our own, often European, traditions of celebrating the Earth and its cycles are lost in time – in other words, “you can’t go back.” It may come as a surprise to consider that the Western concept of time as linear and irreversible is only a cultural perspective, but so it is. In fact, for many of the very cultures that have attracted attention lately, time runs in cycles, or flows in many directions, or even allows past, present and future to occupy the same space. Certainly for all of our ancestors, time flowed differently than it does today. When we open ourselves to the possibility of time behaving differently than we have been taught, then the traditions of our own ancestry, our birthrights, become immediately more accessible. Certainly unraveling the tangles of lineage may take some work, but any single line will eventually lead back to a point when the people were Indigenous, in tune with the Earth, and when they celebrated their spirituality with meaningful rituals, rituals rightfully our own. It certainly is no greater stretch to rediscover, reclaim or rebuild meaningful cultural and spiritual ties to an ancestor from Friesland, the Czech Republic, Romania or Scotland, or for that matter Lascaux, than it is for a Euro-American to legitimately lead an Ojibwe or Lakota sweat lodge.
The question is really not one of going back in time. It is one of getting back on track.