I know exactly when my childhood reverence for the natural world galvanized around nature-based practices. On a high plateau in Death Valley, alone for three days, fasting, feeling everything. The sun just a month past spring equinox, low in the south, I tracked it through each day as guidance to any available shade. Sixty mph gales swept through me west to east one night as I traced the constellations in their revolution around the North Star. Which happens every night. But up until this moment I had been clueless. Over the course of ten days, the natural forces that guide indigenous cultures worldwide began their journey into my bones, my blood, my breath.
Decade birth years call for special acknowledgement. As fifty loomed, spirit demanded milestone recognition. I recall weighing many options but when it came right down to it, my choice was motivated by fear. I wanted something edgy, terror-tinged to mark this turning. Chills moved through me with each re-read about a Death Valley vision quest. The fear itself pulled out my credit card and signed my life away on the morbid liability waiver. A rag tag group of seekers, many also verging on fifty, and two intrepid leaders met over dinner in Las Vegas for the first time. After we ate, in the darkness of a moonless night, they piled us into vehicles, whisked us away into the deep silence of the valley.
We left the main road then continued to travel a bumpy hour off road. I was up front with fearless leader when an owl swooped in front of the windshield. A moment later a coyote led our vehicle for a minute. Driver response? “Interesting medicine.” I was pondering what that could possibly mean when we got as far as a car could roam. We stretched out our sleeping bags and were told to get good sleep cuz it would be a long haul in the morning.
Which it was. Lugging our packs as well as ten days of food and water for twenty people. Two round trips, each two hours over rocky pathless terrain. My wish for fear was being granted along with a heavy dose of exhaustion. After we settled, we plunged into three days of eclectic training: wilderness survival, astronomy, Native American lore—medicine wheels, compass directions, elements, animal lore. Highlight: in the dead of a moonless night, no flashlights, a two mile trail-less hike up a loose shale packed mountain top. Being grounded got real: instinctual, close to the ground, testing weight with every foot fall real. I morphed into a bobcat, slow prowling. But we made it up and back with no losses.
The primary task was spot location, finding the territory to spend three solo days with three gallons of water and a sleeping bag. No food, no tent, no writing or reading. Shelly from Alaska was my boundary buddy. We found a place we could each remain unseen but be in hear-able distance of an emergency whistle. Day Four dawned and we took off. My site was atop a big plateau overlooking Death Valley. We’d been tracking the sun and moon for days so I knew the directions. I was utterly oriented to the earth but still cannot tell you where on a map I was. I hauled rocks to fashion my own medicine wheel, slept in its center each night. All my imagined fears proved baseless. Even the fasting was no big deal after day one. My morning amusement was carefully observing an ant colony that went underground exactly high noon. I missed them when they went to the underworld, thrilled when they emerged at daybreak.
Each morning I hiked to the Shelly boundary to place a rock signaling I was alive and well. It was gratifying to find her’s left the afternoon before. We never saw each other, but knowing she was near was great comfort. Never saw any four legg-eds but there were birds aplenty and I spent trancey hours watching them dart and flock overhead. They seemed to take interest in my plight, as if they safeguarding me. By Day 3, the hike to Shelly took my every ounce of energy. We were to spend the last 24 hours awake as much as possible in the center of our circle.
That day the winds came up. They were terrifying. I could hear them approach for a full two minutes, like a train in the distance. Each gust would descend on me, each subsequent blast more fierce than the last. Despite the evoked fear, they were incredible meditative support, sweeping out persistent mental cobwebs. Thoughts that kept turning to ancestors and siblings lost to time. An emptiness descended on me I had never felt before. The wind never ceased as darkness descended. I laid on my back and watched the sky. At one point I rose in the blackness to exit my circle to pee. In a flash a gust of wind lifted my empty sleeping bag and carried it to the plateau edge. Like it had wings. In a burst of pure energetic survival, I snatched it mid-air, heart thudding grateful to snuggle back in.
When morning dawned, I dismantled my medicine circle, left no trace. Took leave of the ants and birds and a patch of quest supporting earth. A quest for what? It would take a couple years before I realized what this dedicated time had initiated. The rag tag seekers shared three post-days of wonder and witnessing and integration. I was helping in the makeshift kitchen, lifting a cooler off the ground. Underneath were two nestled mating rattlesnakes. Several of us watched a bit then carefully replaced the cooler. “Interesting medicine.” That comment once again….this time I was not clueless.
It was a long road back. The shower and bed and restaurant in Vegas felt unreal. Two things happened when I arrived home that clearly supported the persistent unfolding of this vision quest energy. First was a letter waiting on my clinic desk from Health South. They wanted to purchase my clinic. I had never even considered Dreizler Physical Therapy sell-able. In the open vulnerability of re-entry, the prospect of letting go totally captured my attention. And that response was totally surprising. That particular sale didn’t come to pass. But it illuminated the obvious: it was time to make a change. Five years later the sale finally happened.
The second happening was a prophetic gift from sweet hubby: Yoga Woman, an original Grace Slick pastel of Madonna dancing up a storm. The energy of this electric blue portrait emanated over the fireplace exuding serious magic. Within two years I was utterly on the dancing and yoga path. Ultimately, to follow my heart, to be in alignment with my soul, to listen to the call of spirit, I had to sell that clinic in honor of what was calling. Without that vision quest my life would never have taken the turn that it did. Ever grateful for the fifty year old who wanted to be scared out of complacency and into her truth.
A truth that had been initiated in childhood during long days on the shores of the Pacific. On a six week family car camping trip across the U.S. and back. And days on end in the Sierras, backpacking before anything like REI existed. I am amazed at the courage of my parents and grateful for their induction into a way of being. I am most at home, at peace, in my right place when I am immersed in the natural world. I guess there is no name or even clear definition of what this way of being is. Pagan? Spiritual naturalist?
I quietly call it witchcraft, nature-based practices that nourish me. Like being barefoot on the earth, laying on grass and granite, bathing in bodies of water, orienting to compass directions, honoring the elements, tracking the route of the sun, cycles of the moon, celebrating equinox and solstice. What truly qualifies it as witchcraft is the intrinsic way I feel this in my bones, my blood, my breath. And my clear sense that tapping this energy thrives me in a world gone mad. Even before this enforced isolation we were trending toward separation. From the earth. From each other. From ourselves.
So that’s why I’m offering Witchcraft 101 in my remaining classes for this month of June. It is techno anti-dote. It is a path away from separation and toward connection, toward unity. It is medicine for our times. And it is also why I’m taking some time off in July to be in the lap of Earth Mama for days on end. Not sure how teaching will shape up in July. Stay tuned. But more importantly, take what your body already inherently knows, take what you are gathering from these Witchcraft 101 classes, take yourself away from this screen and go outside and feel. Smell, see, touch, listen. Breathe.
Let’s be together this week and practice so we might go outside and do just that. Love, Bella