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The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.[1]

Bearclaw Rings - VSBlogging about the Nemetons has got me thinking about the process of entering into, experiencing, and maintaining the spiritual practice of inhabiting my true place in the world of Being within nature. Though the dedication and tending of a Nemeton involves many expressions of practice, the basic, underlying spiritual process is the same. This has become a natural, or at least automatic, process that I go through without consciously thinking about it, so I have been taking a step back, as it were, and trying to understand what exactly happens, what exactly I do when practicing in nature, and what comes of it. I have reached the conclusion that it is a process of becoming indigenous to a place. It is a sacred courtship and marriage which is a three part process of becoming aware, becoming acquainted, and becoming one.

Creation of and practice within sacred spaces in nature is an essential aspect of the caring for and renewal of the earth. Activism seems to be required to change legal frameworks, organizational ethics, and societal behavior. Such collectives are, by definition, composites of individuals though and therefore any change of attitudes within these must be preceded by a change of mentality on a personal level.[2] Thus, personal activism is necessary for a broadening of awareness of the physical and spiritual grand ecology of humans and world, and must precede collective activism. The creation and tending of sacred spaces is a form of personal activism, within a cycle of internal processes and external expressions, which transform and empowers attitudes toward nature. It expresses reverence for nature, and broadens the propensity for awareness of the grand ecology on a wider scale. As places of practice, Nemetons, by being an ongoing broadening of awareness and a sacred immersion into the grand ecology, benefit both the practitioner and nature by the one becoming indigenous to the other.

When I say indigenous, I do not mean becoming a part of an indigenous people – that is an honor that, being of European descent, I do not have here, and do not wish to infringe upon. When I say that my practice is one of becoming indigenous, I mean indigenous to that Place – it is an inhabiting of that place in the fullness of physical and spiritual presence. Wendell Berry said that “as a people, we have lost sight of the profound communion-even the union-of the inner with the outer life.”[3] The regaining of this sight, or the transforming of the perception of place as being something that surrounds us to being something we are a part of, is what I mean by becoming indigenous to place. The inhabiting of a place is a three step process: 1) becoming aware, 2) becoming acquainted, and 3), becoming one. These steps do not (usually) happen in one visit – the dedication of a sacred space is not something that can be forced into immediate gratification. Sometimes not all of the steps will happen, but any of them are meaningful in contributing to my being in the world and to the restoration of the human-nature Ecology. It is always a conscious intention of becoming aware of the unity of my Self and the world, and through that an inhabiting of place, even if only for a short while. Returning to the place and engaging in these practices adds to the numinosity of my experience and of the place, strengthening the sacredness, and deepening my indigenous belonging to the place.

The first part of this process usually is a walking meditation. As I go through nature, I attempt to force the ‘High Browed and Absurd Committee of Thought’ to adjourn. One of the most effective ways for me to do this is to consciously engage my senses. My favorite is a practice that has been described in many traditions, one that focuses the sense of hearing by attempting to hear all sounds at once, not allowing the hearing to grant exclusive awareness to any one sound, and not allowing the stream of consciousness to analyze any one of them, instead focusing thought on the intent of hearing everything at once. This intentional hearing replaces the hubbub of mental chatter with the song of nature, and opens channels of communication previously clogged by the ego. Other than the immediate peace that this brings, I find that it allows me to arrive and be in the place in which I actually am, rather than in some past or future place. Through this, I am able to become more aware, not only of the physical aspects of the place, but also of the more subtle spiritual energies and voices of the place. I notice things that I otherwise would not, and am able to allow myself to notice them, to experience them.

In terms of finding a Nemeton, this becoming aware allows certain places to ‘speak up’ and make their presence known through synchronicity, animal guides, a patch of sunlight, a branch in the breeze,  a call of a bird, and, usually, a felt-sense of being called. Sometimes these places invite me in, other times they merely want to say hello but make it clear that I should not enter. Either way, if I do enter, I again ask permission, paying attention to the felt-sense (physical and mental) that arises, and honor the intention of the place. I tread lightly, usually leaving some form of votive offering, such as sage or tobacco (in the U.S…. never offer tobacco in Ireland unless you want to offend and experience extreme disorientation). If I don’t have anything with me, I offer a silent prayer of gratitude, reminding the place that there are still some humans who remember the unity.

This exercise of becoming aware is a practice that I engage in whenever I am in nature, including when I am in or am returning to a known place. The second and third parts of this process usually happen on subsequent visits to the place, and are loosely based on the practice handbook of the now defunct Foundation for Engaged Druidism in which I was involved.

When I am in a certain place (what I have elsewhere called a named and tended place) that I feel is a Nemeton, I will first of all become better acquainted with the place. I do this through a contemplative practice in which I picture the place as being inhabited by all the trees, bushes, birds, insects, and animals which are in a sphere above, below, in, and around the place. I see and acknowledge their physical presence (whether animate or not, and in fact, oftentimes the trees get most of my attention), as living and sentient entities of the community of the place. I see them. I watch them. I send a greeting to them. Then I picture them seeing me, watching me, greeting and acknowledging me. This is usually done after a period of approach in which I had been practicing the awareness exercise described above, and while I do this ‘acquainting’ exercise, my awareness is heightened further and I allow it to go where it will go; to receive and acknowledge sense-feelings as they come. I switch back and forth between seeing the community of the place and being seen by it. This practice brings a feeling of belonging and allows transformation of my perception of the place from being something external and objective but largely unknown, to being one of known and vibrant life and energy.  It raises my consciousness of the place and allows me to participate within it. This is a becoming acquainted, a contemplative discourse with the physical beings of the physical place, and I pay close attention to their reaction when they are seeing me – do they want me to be here? Is this a place for a Nemeton? What message is the archetypal and symbolic language of nature offering to me? What might this discourse indicate as the meaning and purpose of the Nemeton (if in fact, there should be one here)? There is a complex web of communication in which I attempt to engage as I switch back and forth among seeing and being seen.

When it is clear that the place is to become a Nemeton, I continue this practice on subsequent visits to the place. When the time is right, the third part of the process occurs – my awareness of the place is deepened by completely merging with it; becoming one with it. Born of the intention of the place and myself, this deepening is an autonomous event that happens of its own accord without my consciously initiating it. It is a natural fulfillment of the wishes of the soul of the place and my own. This is the becoming indigenous to the place, but it is much more than that. Memories, feelings, intentions, and cyclic processes merge. Being merges. No longer a discrete entity in which I participate, I become the place, the place becomes me. In the becoming acquainted process described above, awareness is focused on the physical presence of the place. In the becoming indigenous process, the awareness shifts from the physical to the spiritual. There is a blending of my soul with the soul of the place, and they become intertwined in a song of oneness. This is not something to take lightly. It is a sacred marriage to the place, and as such, it is a highly mystical union that calls for the utmost honor and respect.

When it occurs, this marriage is very similar to the seeing and being seen of the acquainting process, but happening on a spiritual level, the bond becomes fast and true. It begins as always by the seeing and acknowledging of the physical presence of the place and allowing it to see me. After some time of this seeing, I am ushered more deeply into the place through a sacred knowing that I am one of the entities making up the place. My vision goes from one of belonging, to one of being. Then, my awareness suddenly shifts from seeing the physicality of the place to seeing the spirituality of the place. The entities of the place, including myself, become the soul of the place. This usually appears to me as a bright and glowing globe or vortex. The trees and animals and insects and birds – and most importantly – I, all merge into one living, dynamic, and intentional soul. This is the consummation of the sacred marriage. Though perhaps separated by distance, I no longer can be away from the place, and it can no longer be away from me. Our souls are one and my becoming indigenous is complete.

Tall Spiral Stone Stacking - VSMarriage of course implies reciprocal obligation, and as a part of this, frequent renewal of vows happen as an ongoing deepening and broadening awareness of my Self as the place and the place as my Self. Some places want to remain in their natural beauty, with no footprint of decoration. Others want to be celebrated by the erection of altars or cairns (such as at Visionsong), the construction of symbols (such as the sun wheel at Serpent’s Egg), prayer flags or clooties, or forms of land art. Decisions on whether or not to adorn the place are made through sacred discourse with the place. If we do decide on ornaments, I use natural materials from the place as much as possible. My personal preference is one of minimalism which maintains the natural appearance and contours of the place as much as possible…  I might clean off the central area or paths, erect small cairns or other decorations, but always treading lightly. I attempt to follow the promptings of the place as to what should be done where, and usually realize that this ends up having more significance than if I had attempted to create altars according to the directions or other rigid guidelines. The place is at once the container and expression of this spiritual practice within the grand ecology.

The Sun Wheel in Serpent's Egg

The attitudes of reverence, love, and oneness that emerge through the sacred courtship and marriage to a place don’t end at the perceived borders of that place – they extend to include all of nature, and it is returned by nature.  The becoming indigenous – the awareness, acquaintance, and oneness of the sacred marriage to a place – is a powerful expression of caring for the earth, and allows me to inhabit my true Being.  For me, the varied practices involved in the sacred courtship and marriage to the land have resulted in a transformation and expansion of my inherent spiritual connection to nature. Any activism that I might subsequently engage in is based on a solid foundation, giving deeper meaning and broader frames of reference to any work I may do. I believe that involving both the external and internal aspects of the human-nature ecology on a personal level is the first step in a wider transformation on a societal level. Though some might not be comfortable with my language of courtship and marriage to the land, it is one expression of the recognition of the unity. Everyone should find their own way of re-establishing a perception of unity with nature. How it is done does not matter, only that it is done. Only then can we meet our responsibilities and go forward in hope.

[1] Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977. Print. p. 14

[2] Ibid. p. 26

[3] Ibid. p. 11