My face pressed against the small oval window beside my airplane seat, gazing down at a retreating landscape of juniper trees and snow-capped volcanic peaks while the jet climbed higher, a familiar pang of sadness echoed in my heart. For a moment, the melancholy blue notes took me by surprise, like an old friend not heard from in a while suddenly ringing up to say hello. As I touched into the affect, feeling it as if attempting to determine what it was woven of, I realized that despite the efforts and frustration these past days of searching for a suitable house for rent, that I was so genuinely happy to be back in Oregon at the edge of a wilderness singing my soul awake, the melancholy lay in returning to the California desert and the curious life my past year there has been. I felt grief glimmering at the corner of my eyes, a dull ache of loneliness for some essential part of myself gone missing.
In a land of bright sunshine, so intense that even shadows have no place to hide, my wild soul unexpectedly withered. Not so much from the searing UV light but from dwelling in a soul-less town, in a tidy neighborhood of mid-century houses, once more finding myself with no direct access to ‘wildness’ other than to drive some distance, which is not always convenient or possible. Living on a flight path, no less, with the loud drone of jets overhead carrying pasty-skinned tourists to the winter playground of Palm Springs. Thus I found myself mostly camped indoors, tending the domestic aspects of myself—healer, homemaker, cook, editor—while neglecting the earthier, untamed, and free-spirited elements. But for vividly hued hummingbirds and their acrobatics, the laughter and antics of dusky-voiced ravens, and coyotes yipping at night as they roamed the desert streets, I might have been even more deeply lost to myself.
Half a dozen reasons brought us to this strange place, so obviously a mismatch for a reclusive Green Man and earth mystic. Much of our rationale centered on the compromises all committed relationships must navigate in their own way: work, family, money, health, community, et al.. Admittedly, after two years spent bundled for warmth in the cold damp and grey fog of the central California coast, I was nearly desperate to escape to the sunshine, to once more warm my chilled bones; I simply hoped I could survive in what is essentially now the desert-situated, retirement-meets-bedroom community of greater Los Angeles (and to a lesser degree, San Diego).
One year later, the pendulum having swung to the other extreme, my body cooked and dried out, my physical constitution seeks middle ground in regards to weather. More essential than that, however, I truly needed a deeper connection with land that speaks to my soul, calling me home by a secret name.
One cannot fathom the mystery, I so often say. Recently, through a curious turn of events—which is always how matters of the soul unfurl—after deciding we would relocate from Rancho Mirage to dear Santa Fe (where I lived briefly some years ago) in New Mexico, a door unexpectedly opened for us… in Oregon. Thus in the coming weeks, once again our painted gypsy caravan rolls on, carrying us north, returning almost full circle to a place we resided ten years before with friends and family nearby. This time, however, we’ll be settling on the easterly, sunny side of the Cascades, in the rapidly growing town of Bend, named for a curve in the Deschutes River where the old town sits.
In some respects, this relocation is still a compromise (read, it isn’t Santa Fe or back to England). Yet I have chosen willingly and embraced it, not simply because the environment of town and landscape feels nourishing to my soul, but because when I weighed the matter internally as to whether such a move truly supported me, an answer swiftly arose to one essential question.
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Since January, as my ongoing shamanic initiation and training as a ‘medicine man’ continued to unfold in difficult and unexpected ways, catapulting me even further along the arc and spiral of personal evolution, the realization crystallized that a deceptively simple query is the only compass direction worth following. A barometer reading, of sorts, measuring the inner, atmospheric pressure of the soul. Or one’s level of conviction, perhaps.
Is it a path with heart?
On the journey through life, little else matters. Indeed, true to my own conviction that love is the heart of everything, I might go so far as to say that beyond requirements for meeting one’s basic needs of sustenance, shelter, warmth and whatnot, nothing else has relevance.
For some, that path of heart may involve family, affinity for a certain place, a role or job we love, or a soul calling in their core; certainly, for each of us it will be different. What matters is that we make our decision from a deeper, more embodied place than mere intellect or pragmatism—useful as that can be—trusting in feelings as an equally valid, non-linear, intuitive way of knowing and finding one’s own authenticity.
Arguably it began in the West with René Descartes (Cogito, ergo sum, Je pense, donc je suis, or, “I think, therefore I am”), the philosophy separating mind from body. Cartesian dualism, we might call it, with the emphasis being placed upon thinking. In the three-hundred plus years since his writings, science has mostly sought to establish the brain as the seat of consciousness, placing our higher mental faculties (logic, reasoning, etc.) upon a pedestal to further separate us from the so-called animals. Yet there is still no proof that consciousness is generated anywhere in the brain regions; indeed, our very notion of ‘mind’ is evolving rapidly as research shows that all cells have memory and decision-making ability, not merely those in the cerebral regions. The heart itself is a highly specialized ‘brain’ of sorts, composed of an intricate network of complex ganglia, neurotransmitters, proteins and support cells, the same as those of the dominant organ in the head, and sends more information to the brain through afferent (ascending) pathways than the brain sends to the heart (via efferent, descending neural pathways).
Consciousness is everywhere, in everything: a suprasomatic sentience that we are intrinsically a part of and inseparable from. It’s a conspiracy of life and intelligence, right down to the microbes and cells of our being.
Yet how few of us trust that deeper, enigmatic knowing, afraid to follow its summons for a hundred seemingly justified reasons. “I can’t because…”
Everything is a choice (breathing, brain and cellular functions aside), even when it doesn’t feel that way. And everything is connected.
For most humans, our world has become a superficial existence of chaos, noise, angst and anger, mental overdrive, and increasing artificiality. Endlessly seduced by our chosen distractions, wedded to technology and electronic gadgets, ensnared by unconscious character strategies and expectations, disconnected from any meaningful sense of ‘nature’, how easily we are pulled off course from the quiet whisperings of the soul. Swept along in our own busyness and seldom pausing to reflect, listen, or truly feel, how does one regain or hold onto a sense of center? Or perspective…? As with inhaling a deep breath or placing bare soles upon the earth—both of which help us descend from our heads to anchor us in the present moment—asking this one question can be the Pole Star that offers direction and guidance: a path to follow and live by, wherever it may lead.
Unlock your heart. Again and again I say and write it. Unfasten those weathered shutters. What the mystics, lovers and poets have always known, science is beginning to discover: the heart is an organ of perception. It feels the world, and it is in this way—feeling—that Nature (embodied as plants, trees, rocks, rivers, even microbes) communicates with us. When we open the doors of perception, through our senses and heart, we step into a different sphere, another ‘room’ in the garden, so to speak.” (excerpted from “Belonging In A Real World,” TendingSacred, 2017)
Another room in the garden… surely that is where we wish to be on this short, sensual journey of life?
Just two weeks ago, during morning council following a ‘medicine ceremony’, one of the participants shared her experience and mulled aloud an insight/question regarding her future that arose in the previous night’s journey. When she paused for a moment, reflecting inwardly, as the facilitator I enquired simply:
“Is it a path with heart? That’s all that really matters. It’s the one question to ask in order to remain true to your soul.”
She looked at me, bright tears glistening in her eyes, and nodded in reply.
“Yes… it is. You’re right.”
A few days prior, it was the same query I asked of my partner as he wrestled with whether to accept the new job in Bend when it was offered to him. Myself, having made a choice in our move of house a year ago that wasn’t a path of heart but rather for all those compromises mentioned above, I wanted to be sure we were both on track this time—neither of us sacrificing something essential for the other’s seeming well benefit.
Only YOU will hear the soul’s often-cryptic calling and then follow the winding trail alone, even in relationship. Further, echoing the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, in the final line of her beautiful poem “The Journey,” that celebrates and upholds the soul’s brave journey, ultimately the only life you can save is your own.
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Strange, perhaps, that a healer who has dedicated the past decade of his life to all matters of the soul would end up spending a year in a nearly soulless environment beyond the walls of his sanctuary home. It might even be tempting to consider this time in the Southern California desert as something of a wrong turn or mistake, traveling backwards perhaps, except that the journey of our days is not linear; instead it’s a spiral, and we are still moving forward even when it appears or feels otherwise.
I was never called here by earth or allurement—the eros of place, I’ve termed it—as I have been to other places in my wandering life. And while good things have certainly happened, at times during this past year I’ve felt so disconnected from the Wild Beloved that I have found it difficult to write these posts—having lost or misplaced the inner poet of myself, the bronzed and brave one who sings praise to the spirits, who sees the trembling beauty of the world in each diamond dewdrop or spider’s web. Yet my daily rituals have carried me through, practicing the very things I write about and teach: tending the ordinary sacred with a pot of good tea, barefoot qigong, preparing a nourishing meal, tending my (ever thirsty) green friends in their clay pots once the heat of day has abated, watching (hearing!) the hummingbirds zoom loudly to and fro, keeping their red glass feeders filled, working with dreams, walking the dogs at night beneath the clear stars and a chipped silver coin of moon, watching lanky palms sway as their fronds dance clackity clackity in the breezes.
Wherever I am, I confess a near endless capacity for childlike wonder at simple things, which are often the most beautiful and overlooked—delighting in little bats twirling dizzily in a periwinkle sky, or the silhouette of the mountains at twilight rising like a dragon’s spine… until the roar of another jet on approach for landing causes me to grumble.
Still, if we look for a bit of beauty and inspiration each day, we will surely find it, even in the most unlikely places—including the strange, superficial world of greater Palm Springs. And there is mysterious grace that alights in the most unexpected moments. Yes, always grace, I say.
In April, wrapped in a shawl of blue-grey and adrift within myself despite the soulful, mindful life I’ve carefully fashioned, I realized that certain things cannot be compromised—such as where I live and a connection to untamed earth—and that I needed to realign my compass, irrespective of family, work, and everything else.
For a wild, awake soul, connecting consciously with earth is always a path with heart, and when a place resonates deeply in our bones—a soulscape—so much the better. In a real sense, this is the core of my upcoming workshop, “Sacred Earth: Heart, Senses, and Soul” in August at historic Ghost Ranch, near Abiquiu, New Mexico. I’m thrilled to host this intimate, three-day residential retreat on some of the most powerful, enchanting land I’ve ever encountered—once the home of Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a landscape she made famous. The heart-shaped labyrinth photographed at the top of this post is just outside Casa del Sol, where our group will be staying (right next O’Keeffe’s house), and each day we will literally walk a path of the heart.
Already I can smell the familiar fragrance of sagebrush and resinous evergreens, chamisa and dusty earth; I can feel the soft expansion of breath in my belly, a slight tingling in my feet and legs from bare soles on the dry, red soil as I wander beneath the dome of turquoise sky. Ghost Ranch is a land for visions and dreams, of connecting deeply to soul and purpose, where all the clutter and clatter of the modern world falls away, inviting us into the ordinary sacred in every moment… along with an opportunity to peer fearlessly into the wild heart.
Both in New Mexico and our impending move from the desert, I am coming home to myself once more.
Soon, very soon, we will be rolling northward, leaving this parched land of bright sun, turquoise swimming pools, lurid green golf courses, expensive cars, and endless mechanical hum of air conditioners. While the ‘right’ house has not yet appeared for us in Oregon, in the coming days I know it will: a dwelling that supports my larger work for the ‘more-than-human’ world, where my soul feels deeply nourished by the trees and landscape just outside the door, and the air smells sweetly of resinous juniper at night and after a silver rain.
Trust in mystery and grace, River.
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Returning from my most recent scouting trip, feeling slightly dejected that our new abode has not manifested or opened its door to us, as I pulled into the driveway of the darkened house and stepped from the car, I heard coyotes laughing in the dry arroyo down at the end of the street. My heart smiled, mirroring the grin on my face, for I do love these feral, shaggy outlaws. They bring memories of living in Taos, New Mexico, at the edge of a dusty, piñon-clad mesa in a shaman’s adobe tower, and years later in a jewel box casita on the Rio Grande del Rancho, where I lay in bed and listened to them serenading a luminous pearl of moon. They left scat on the doorstep for me to find next morning. Their presence reminds me to laugh (especially at myself) and not take life too seriously, to embody ‘trickster’ medicine, and be the Holy Fool. It was the perfect welcome, really. Bless their furry paws.
I stood outside in the night air, feeling the warm ground underfoot as I ‘earthed’ after hours in a couple of planes, my nostrils trying to catch some faint whiff of sweetness, and out of habit I glanced up at the patio fan to check on the duo of baby hummingbirds that hatched there, just atop the light. But they fledged right before I left on this recent trip, leaving their delicately woven home behind, along with a little song of gratitude in my heart.
It was the second nesting cycle I’ve been privileged to observe up close and intimately here in the past few months. The first was in the tall oleander hedge, with a hatchling I rescued when the nest came apart in high winds and rain (see my Instagram posts @tendingsacred); this one was right outside our kitchen window, above the patio table. I watched green-feathered mama build the nest—constructed mostly from spiderwebs and softest plant materials—carefully affixing it to the light fixture, over a period of five days. Then she laid two tiny, alabaster eggs inside and sat on them for a fortnight until they hatched.
Hummingbirds have long been a ‘totem’ ally of mine, and their ‘medicine’ (a gift, talent, or ability) is often cited as the energy of joy. It seems fitting to this Green Man healer that part of that medicine is the ability to open one’s heart in wonder, awe, and delight—inviting us to follow a path of heart regardless of direction, just as they wing (the only bird that can fly backwards). Truly, the treat of so closely observing hatchlings in the nest, with mama zooming to and fro to feed and tend them, was a present beyond compare.
Deep gratitude to you little ones, now flown but still visiting the red glass feeder… thank you for daily doses of delight and sweet medicine.
I couldn’t resist purloining the downy soft, abandoned housing to place upon my altar, set beside other little treasures gathered on walks and rambles from a life crafted on both sides of the Atlantic. (Hummingbirds here seldom reuse their nests, though they will ‘recycle’ material from them for a new construction.) What a remarkable bit of work, this delicate thing, with two little feathers still embedded. Surely this is natural elegance as befits a baby hummingbird (two, as it were)!
Holding it cupped in my palm, it offers me a daily reflection of the miracle of life, along with the staggering intelligence and creativity of the cosmos embodied… what we call Nature.
Moreover, this little, intricately woven gift somehow comforts and reassures me that we will once again find a sweet little place to land (we always do) in yet another cycle of our ongoing adventure. A lovely nest, a fresh chapter. Something new has incubated, hatched, and fledged in our life… not just baby birds.
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My partner and I both fully grasp that no place is perfect; we have traveled round the globe and lived in all sorts of far flung locales, learning that every place holds its grace and challenges. Admittedly, I will miss the mild weather here in winter, and the acrobatic zoom of ‘hummers’ when I step outdoors or spy them beyond the windows, and the occasional furtive road runner. I trust the coyotes will find me wherever I am (albeit in England and Spain, those clever and magical foxes stood in for their noisy American cousins). Fingers crossed.
For my own journey, what matters deeply is to be interwoven in a tangible way with the larger ecology of the sacred—which is not simply ‘nature’ but the level of consciousness with which we and others interact with that. Something more than an ‘ecosystem’. We ARE are nature, and never disconnected from it; yet in our modern, glaringly lit gridworks of paved roads and uniformly geometric buildings, far removed from food supplies, water sources, wild creatures, and undomesticated land, we easily lose track and forget of who we really are.
John Muir, the pioneering Scottish-American naturalist, author, and conservationist once wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go…”
How deeply I resonate with his famous, much abbreviated comment, sensing the same sort of compelling urgency in my own tissues and heartbeat as he must have felt with his unbridled love for the wilderness (especially for what is now Yosemite National Park, thanks in no small part to his efforts).
The jagged peaks of the Cascades, the icy cold Deschutes River, and the vast high desert plateau carpeted in fragrant juniper trees and sagebrush, are all calling my soul… and I must answer.
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Gentle reader, wherever you currently find yourself, either alone or with a partner/mate/companion/family, when you face a crossroads or some decision as to which direction to go, my hope is that you will take a moment—or as long as it requires—to tune in to yourself. Inhale a deep breath, letting it find its way into your belly. Shed those shoes and wriggle your bare toes on the earth. Relax the jaw and let shoulders drop, rolling them open and back. Unclench your buttocks. And then… listen and observe what happens within when you ask the one question that matters, the only compass direction worth following.
As Mary Oliver enquires in another oft-quoted poem, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
May you always, always follow a path with heart, trusting to the best of your ability in the mystery and curious grace that will guide you once you step out onto the road or open field.
Blessed be, friend.