Ekunyi's Embers

Archive for the ‘Keystones of the Sacred Land’ Category

Frog as a Cultural Keystone

Two weeks ago I spent several days in my childhood home in Maryland, visiting family and taking care of some planning for my upcoming wedding. Each night, after a busy day of visits and organization, I was greeted by the voices of hundreds of native treefrogs. The slow rising, alto creeeeeeeek of the upland chorus frog formed a polyphonic chant with the soprano chirrups of spring peepers. I did not see them on this trip, but recalled with joy being in my early years and finding the little creatures crawling on the sides of my parents house, loving that they were so small and yet had such a tremendous voice.

The return of the chorus frogs was always, for me, the first sign of the return of the warmer months. School would soon draw to a close, and a summer full of adventures would soon begin. So too would my personal new year be arriving, my August birthday arriving only a few months after the frog song began, and even when little the choir of ribbits got me thinking about what it would be like to be another year older, wondering about the year behind me, and the year to come. I would lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to the rhythms of amphibian music, dreaming and pondering about new beginnings until eventually sleep took me.

This emphasis on Frog as a representative of new beginnings on the east coast of the United States once reflected fresh starts on another shore: that of the Nile delta. In Ancient Egypt, immediately following the annual flooding of the great river, thousands of frogs would seemingly “emerge” from the soil, as the sodden earth provided a greater expanse of habitat, and the various frog species began to mate and reproduce. Though my research has not yet lead me to which of the following endemic amphibian species to the Nile valley region (egyptian toad and mascarine ridged frog) most likely existed at that time, one or both contributed to the ancients’ understanding of the goddess Heqat: lady of rebirth, midwife to the gods, giver of life to the human bodies that potter Khnum created upon his wheel. When the frogs returned after the flood waters subsided, so too would crops begin to grow, new projects could begin as the silt was once again rich with nutrients and the sky rich with frogsong.

It cheers me that these various species on both sides of the globe remain listed as unthreatened, though the Egyptian frogs have declined substantially in the past 10 years due to overharvesting for university study. Hopefully something can be done to protect them, as the frogs serve not only as a symbol of renewal, a current cultural keystone within the Americas and a historic cultural keystone of the Nile delta, but also as a source of food for other predatory species seeking sustenance as they enter their own breeding seasons, a source of protection from imbalance as they keep insect populations in check.

The frogs are necessary to balance, necessary for new life. Their song must continue to be sung.

Hunting, Habituating and Hibernating

When it comes to my work with animal-based guides, I have mostly found myself drawn to predators. Great-horned owl, red wolf, western green mamba, polar bear, orca… the list goes on. Until recently, my gods have reflected this association: they’re both warriors with predatory theophanies. They are the hunter, not the hunted.

To some extent I think this fascination is cultural: for all that human population seem to feel threatened by predators, there simultaneously tends to be a glorification of predatory species in art and literature that overlooks prey animals. On the other hand, I think there is also a matter of personal compensation. I am not as strong as I would like to be, I have had to teach myself to be independent, to fight, to hunt down the things I need rather than constantly providing for the needs of others as is my first instinct. I look to predators to teach me these things.

So when my Keystones e-course asked me to study a predator: this was easy. Not two days before that lesson arrived I’d been reading about the local coyote population in the newspaper. I could easily admire the adaptable, cunning canines that have worked their way into Pittsburgh city limits, living well off of young deer, rabbits, squirrel, and yes, the occasional small cat or dog left outside during the dark hours. I enjoyed reading more about their flexibility, their ability to hunt as a temporary pack or function alone in equal measure. I found it interesting that the article actually took into account that they were helping with the over population of deer in the area, while also acknowledging that they were proving a threat to the domesticated animals of the city.

Less easy was picking a prey species. After several days of disgruntled failure to choose, I wound up stepping into the patch of woods behind my apartment and sending a silent request for some clue of who would like me to work with them. Over the next three days, I saw three groundhogs in three separate locations, and subsequently became very aware of certain biases.

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Memories reared up of my father complaining about groundhogs tearing up the backyard, my mother twisting her ankle when a tunnel collapsed beneath her. Simultaneously, I recognized that I had never shifted anything remotely like a groundhog in meditation: and the prospect of transforming into something so small and, well, rotund… didn’t sit well. I’d be lunch!

More days passed with little progress made at convincing myself to give it a try. Finally, at Meeting, as I settled myself into quiet meditation and began to visualize the temple in the woods, I was met with an immediate request from Heqat, “You have two visitors.”

Coyote and Groundhog stood at the end of the long temple hall, waiting just beyond the edge of the marble flooring. I followed them hesitantly as they led me deeper and deeper into the winding maze of trees and brush. We finally settled by a small hole in the ground, and I sat, crosslegged, waiting for what was to come next.

In the blink of an eye I *was* groundhog, and could not seem to shift myself to anything else. I panicked, feeling very small, and very aware that a predator was now staring down at me hungrily. I ran instinctively toward the hole, right on the tail of the groundhog who’d led me there. We clambered down, but a sharp pain from one of my hindfeet held me in place and I began to be dragged back out. The groundhog in front of me whirled around, rushing past me, and sunk his very long teeth directly into the coyote’s snout. The predator let go of me, and we both rushed deeper into the den, down into the cool darkness and safety.

The tunnel went on for far longer than I expected, past a small side chamber with some grass-like material, and eventually back up again some indeterminate amount of time later. My guide reared up ahead of me, sniffing cautiously, before wandering out. I was all nerves, body full to brimming with scents and awareness. It was kind of amazing, how much I recognized from the tiniest of vibrations in the earth around me, how much I could smell. We rushed across forest, finding another den to explore. This one was structured the same way, but held a small group of wild rabbits, who’d taken advantage of another groundhog’s efforts. I marveled slightly at how the den could be passed on from one species to the next.

Continuing on to the third den, we were nearly taken by a hawk but made it below ground in time courtesy of the warning cry of another of our kind. It struck me then how skilled my guide was, how challenging he made it for his predators to find him. I was reminded also of how fiercely he fought for me, how much damage those long marmot teeth could do when necessary.

I apologized, and I thanked him.

He stopped his running and turned, amusement in his small eyes.

So I’m not “just a rodent”?

“No, though I may be just a fool.”

Hmm. Perhaps! But this can change, given time, thought, and effort.

“What should I do?”

Dance me. Learn my motions. Read of me. Bring your new knowledge to my dance. Then, once you have done this, rest. Learn of the significance of hibernation, and hibernate yourself. You need time to consider, time just to be, before you will be ready to run to your next destination without being consumed. Rest, and you will make it. Do not rest, and what you fear will eat you. You cannot forever be the hunter.

This will be a difficult lesson for me, having solely defined myself for so long as someone who must constantly be on the hunt for new work to be living a worthwhile life, constantly chasing the next challenge to prove myself worthy. But, having made the realization that this is not healthy, I think I can take the first step towards hibernating for awhile, habituating myself within a new environment, and finally, when ready, emerging and beginning the hunt once again.

Spiritual Places Without and Within

I will not live the live my parents led, and I am fine with this. As musician, artist, and scholar, hopefully someday counselor, my home will not compare with the home of two lawyers that I grew up in: again, I am fine with this. My home is huge in comparison with the homes of many. Three rooms full of instruments and art and books. My home is open to those friends and family who need shelter. My home is full to brimming with the affection between two human-bodied and two feline-bodied people. There is space in my home for the ancestors to visit, if they choose, a small space always left for a father, two grandfathers, and any other relations to drop by in whatever form they might take. There is space in my home for gods and spirits, a Kemetic shrine and animist altar well tended in separate rooms for separate moments of worship.
 
My home exists in the liminality of the mountains and the city. Sturdy brick with nearly 70 years to its name surrounds me, with human neighbors above and below. Yet the deer walk the small patch of woods behind my home, as do chipmunk and squirrel. The robins greet me in the warmer months, the crows laugh when the weather begins to cool. Wild turkeys occasionally posit themselves directly in front of my car, reminding me that nothing is so important that it can’t wait a few more minutes for them to strut on by.

In my mind my “territory” extends about a mile east, to the avenue that holds both my favorite cafe and my nearest big park. I wrote my masters thesis, in its entirety, in the local, family-run coffee shop. I know the people there better than I do the ones in my own building. After working and writing for hours on end, I can walk up the same street to my park, get lost in the trails that during summer are shielded from any roads. I can view the Allegheny river from here, greet a broader range of avian life: mallard ducks, Canadian geese, chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, grackle… the list goes on. Only recently, courtesy of the animist course I’ve been taking, have I looked on a smaller scale. Ants, wee spiders hiding in the bark, inch worms, lady bugs… a world I’ve not given nearly enough notice to. The plants as well: a newly acquired Kindle has allowed me to download a guide to the wildflowers and trees. My goal is to know the park that has given me such joy since I claimed Pittsburgh as my new home three years ago. I owe it that much, if not more.

Yet my home extends beyond this physical space. My heart strings are taut. The core, bass strings are drawn out of love and duty to my parents and Maryland; these are also pulled fiercely to Texas where my sister, best friend, and heart-kin lives with zir mate. Higher pitched strands guide my soul to Colorado, North Carolina, Illinois, and West Virginia. These are the homes of friends, family; so many loved ones I cannot ever see nearly enough for my own liking. Pittsburgh remains within driving distance of many of these places, and I am grateful for that. For the places more distant, it grants me compensation: in being near other spaces important to those I love, it gives me the option to see them when they travel. It also provides me both the water I grew up with, albeit three mighty rivers instead of the one great Bay, and gods bless it for the mountains.
 
It is unsurprising to me that the places I travel in my meditative journeying efforts reflect the reality of the physical that feeds my soul. My internal temple, while Kemetic in design, was built within a natural clearing in a vast forest. It is near a great river where I work with Heqat and Hatmehyt, and the forest itself is rolling and wild, a part of some unknown mountainous region in my mind. I run the woods with deer and hound, I soar above the trees and see great valleys and other, unknown tributaries with Great Horned Owl. As my physical self, I seek similar places out in my actual travels. I clean litter from the aforementioned park when I visit, trying to protect what small corner of my ecosystem is within my neighborhood, my little human territory.

I would shrivel up without access to the woods, the water, the birds and the green. It is as much a part of my spiritual life as ritual and prayer.

Finding my spiritual Keystones – Journal 1.2

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I am nineteen and just returned home for my first summer after starting college, an internal mess of new realizations about love, knowledge, and independence that I experienced over the past eight months. I have a few weeks before the summer job at the theatre starts up, and my mind is free to wander through these new ideas, many of which prove intensely uncomfortable. On the first day available to me without a thunderstorm, I wait until both parents have left for their respective jobs, and begin the half hour walk out of our suburban neighborhood to the local park. My feet take me deep into Quiet Waters Park, originally to my little pagoda on the South River which was so well known to me, but then, before I arrive, off the trail. I am uncertain if this is “permitted” by park regulations, but something of that newfound craving for independence granted me in the past year compels me to push aside old fears and before long I’ve lost myself amidst the trees and the cries of insects and the occasional rustle of an eastern grey squirrel or chipmunk who saw me before I them, and ran off.

After walking for an indeterminate amount of time, I find myself tiring, and settle on a fallen log, perching on the rough oaken bark and just watching the world move around me. As the sun continues its march across the sky and begins its descent, boldly plumed male cardinals keep their distance while boldly spirited robins come far closer to eye the stranger in their midst. I mimick the cries of birds singing out above me as evening creeps ever nearer, laughing quietly to myself in sheer joy as we engage in a peculiar sort of call and response. I’ve no idea if they are reacting to this giddy human soprano’s efforts to join in the avian choir, or just continuing in their own standard repetition of melody, but it is absolutely joyous.

Behind me and the log, a sudden crack. I turn, ever so slowly, to see two massive white tailed does looking at me, maybe ten feet away. I blink, they blink, and then they turn and bolt. I don’t know what compels me to follow them, in the grand scheme of things it is not particularly intelligent, given how much larger they were than I, and how much damage a deer can do when frightened. But fortunately they just speed ahead, tawny pelts turned golden in the remaining light of dusk, leading me on for a few seconds that feel like forever before disappearing from my view into a field of thick marsh reeds as high as my shoulders.

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On Science and Sentiment – Journal 1.1

Fisherman’s boy with a bucket of water
goes walking each day on the shore
Looking in tide-pools and crannies
for fish that were stranded
Sure-handed he’d gather them all
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

Soon he was throwing the nets like his father
And hauling them back to the shore
Taking the time to be careful and sort the unneeded
from those he would store in the hold
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

He went down in a storm near the rocks of Point Cleary
They searched ’til the night drove them home
But in the morning they found him, alive and unbattered
Where shattered wood littered the stones
He’d been thrown back from the ocean
Back to the living once more

Fisherman’s boy with a son and a daughter
goes walking each day on the shore
Looking in tide-pools and crannies
for fish that were stranded
Sure-handed they gathered them all
Throwing them back to the ocean
Back to the living once more

***

I find that songs serve as their own form of mythology, balancing the necessity of conveying a story with poetic meter and rhyme before bringing it all together with a vocal line and accompaniment that reflects the information and emotion the song’s crafter seeks to share. Heather Dale is one such songstress, conveying beautiful interpretations of various legends with a fluid, soothing voice and a way with words I could only hope to emulate in my own work.

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