by Larry Gray
One of my favorite quotes from Henry David Thoreau echoed in my mind as I recently headed out into the Yukon wilderness for a 3-day vision quest:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I went to the woods this time to explore what it had to teach me about being a conscious elder. I had a lot of resistance to acknowledging my age because of the tremendous amount of cultural baggage, negative stereotypes and downright ageism that exists in society. I knew in my heart and mind these cultural messages were simply wrong. They certainly didn’t mesh with my own lived experience.
I spent three days and nights on a high ridge with an expansive view of a river below, forested hills and mountains in front of and behind me and the ridgetop leading upwards to a high peak. No sign of any human presence on the landscape.
There, I walked daily – more like meandering as the river was doing. I love Thoreau’s word for it: “sauntering” from his famous essay: Walking. I became acquainted with the many beings who live here – the aspens, spruce and pine, the sage and grasses, the eagles and chickadees, the wind and the rain, the hard earth and the soft composting leaves on the forest floor. Over time, I allowed all this to seep into my consciousness. Messages from Nature come in many ways and forms. But this form of wordless communication takes time, something in short supply for many of us and certainly for the culture at large. In this article, I would like to share two of these communications with you.
Meanders and Oxbows
“When a river reaches a low-lying plain in its final course to the sea or a lake, it meanders widely. Deposition occurs on the convex bank because of the ‘slack water’, or water at low velocity. … When deposition finally seals off the cut-off from the river channel, an oxbow lake is formed.”
The environment surrounding me on that ridgetop afforded an expansive view of the river, its steep sandy banks, the nearby hills, the more distant mountain peaks, the dome of the sky, the movements of birds on their aerial traverses, the forests and alpine meadows and more. It was an eagle’s-eye view, as Ron Pevny has described the vantage point of an elder. Over time, I saw the meandering river before me as representative of my own life’s journey. The current was visible – a relentless onward flow of time and energy.
I was facing south and off to the east below me I could see an oxbow lake. Having taught geology before, I understood how it was formed and I could visualize the process at work over many years that formed the oxbow. One of the main intentions of doing this quest was to make peace with my former “selves” and all the hard experiences that those selves went through. These experiences had been crystallized into my neural pathways in the form of traumatic memories. I began to see the oxbow lake as representative of a traumatic memory. I realized and I could see directly that the oxbow was no longer part of the main current of the river. It had been cut off.
I walked down to the oxbow a couple of times. It was quite different than the river it was once part of. Crescent-shaped in form, it was quite swamp-like with more grasses and sedges than actual open water. I began to see my life’s journey in a new way, from a different and more expansive perspective – an eagle’s eye view. I began to see these traumatic memories that haunted my consciousness as “oxbow lakes”, no longer connected to the main flow of the river of my life. I could visit them, but no need to stay long. The river calls to me to continue my journey – ever onward.
Later in my quest, while I spent an afternoon sitting beside the river, somewhat entranced by the swift current flowing by inches from me, I was gifted with a process to heal my wounded psyche. Whenever I encounter an “oxbow lake memory”, from my elder perspective, I send love, forgiveness and gratitude to the person I was then. It’s a personal ritual or ceremony. And when it’s over, I rejoin the river of my life in the present moment, the here and now. The memory is further integrated into my psyche. For me, that’s what healing is.
Life in Death, Death in Life
When you immerse yourself in wild Nature and drop your defenses of fear, anxiety and perhaps internalized nature-averse cultural stories, strange things can happen. Boundaries become blurred, perceptions shift, perceived alienations become opportunities for deep affiliation. Even the demarcation between life and death becomes indistinct. This happened to me. Spending a prolonged time deeply immersed in and in reciprocal relationship with so many diverse natural beings, my awareness became sharpened, senses attentive and alive, perceptions crisp and clear. Where previously, I always saw life and death as discrete entities, this was not so in the natural world.
I dwelled in a world of eagles soaring on updrafts, light rain falling from grey clouds caressing the sage that embroidered the hillside, orange and rusty brown leaves composting on the forest floor giving rise to an incredible array of wild mushrooms. Aspen leaves trembled in the afternoon breeze, the river’s current visibly moving ever onward, a startled mule deer darting into the forest. Wildflowers – some still blooming – others having transformed into the dry stalks that will provide nutrients for the next generation. And on and on it goes, without beginning or end. One unbroken continuum of life and death, the two phenomena forever yoked to each other in a sublime and eternal dance that is Nature.
All these beings and all these ecological processes – growth, becoming, allowing, nurturing, being, transforming – implanted themselves into my psyche and even into my body. I realized that life and death were all around and it was impossible to distinguish between the two – living and dying are one ongoing concurrent process! Guided by this growing realization – an awakening fostered by my surroundings, I needed to look no further than my own body to deepen this even further. As I sat in the forest or on the hillside or in the meadow or lay under the bewildering maze of stars we call the Milky Way, I felt and knew deeply that life and death are happening to me right here, right now. Millions of cells in my body are dying in each moment while millions of cells are simultaneously being born. It’s all right here. My body is my home – the temple of my spirit. Nature/Earth is also my home – a home that I share with all other beings – the temple of the Great Spirit.
In order for something new to emerge, to be born and to grow, something else has to die. That is the way of Nature. I saw, smelled, tasted, touched and felt this truth directly all around me, unmediated. Amidst the rotting compost of the recent leaf fall, amongst the brown dead grasses on the hillside, mushrooms and new plant growth were emerging. So it is, I realized with myself. For my true and conscious elder self to emerge I had to let go of my attachment to my former selves. They had to become compost and fertilizer, providing the life-giving nutrients for my nascent elder self to grow.
I feel that the Nature-disconnected environments we have created (like cities, where over half of humanity lives) fail to support our most authentic selves – what I sometimes call our “ecological self”. For me, wild Nature is the healing environment that bests supports my journey of growth and expanding awareness. I have now made a personal pledge to undertake a vison quest each year – to nurture and foster my truly authentic self.
Let us all use our remaining decades to become who we truly are and thereby heal ourselves and this beautiful and wondrous Earth.
Larry Gray is a professor in Environmental Studies at Yukon University in northern Canada and a guide with the Center for Conscious Eldering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org