At the threshold I feel queasy and sick throughout my whole being. It is soon my turn to step into the choice I have already made. It isn’t too late to turn back. My knees rock forward and back while a voice in my head utters, “I am not ready, I am not ready, I am not ready.” As the dawn sun creeps across the meadow, I step in to the warm embrace of a blanket and the strong arms of a friend and guide who walks me to the center of the medicine wheel where two other sets of strong arms welcome me. They hold my flanks and have my back. They hold me in a ceremony of words and the smoke of smoldering sage. The rest is up to me. My journey is mine.
For a year I knew I would go on the wilderness quest, and even though I did not know what it would bring, it pulled me into my future. It pulled me into subterranean conversations with my self and my Self. It pulled me to the edge of the Sacred Mountain where I had shelter and water, but no food.
As I prepared for the quest, I named my intention: to explore how scarcity and abundance manifest in my body. My eating habits are about deprivation and I wanted to explicitly invite abundance. How better to do this than go without food and show my body what hunger really feels like. I learned that not only can I be comfortable without food, without the trappings of food I can learn a great deal about myself.
I choose a random trail for a medicine walk, in the spring, to prepare for the wilderness quest. As I arrive at the trailhead in my car, a bison blocks the road. I wait as it moves to the grass among the picnic tables, joining a mate. I park and sit in the car, wondering how to proceed with two of North America’s largest mammals a short distance away. They take no notice of me, so I slowly make my way to a picnic table near the car, to sit outside with my purpose for the walk. The bison lift their heads, peer at me, lower their heads and continue to mow the grass. When I make my way back to my car to retrieve my backpack they move only their eyes. “This is how it will work,” I say to myself. “We will keep our distance and we will keep an eye on each other.”
A spot of asphalt that turns to gravel is my threshold, where my walk begins. A few steps in, I find five walking sticks lying by the side of the trail. One of them finds its way into my hand, my thumb exploring a groove left by a beaver’s gnawing. Along the trail are birds, butterflies, beavers and endless amounts of bison dung. I am on their land. As the path turns to west, to bend around the lake, I find myself at the edge of a small meadow looking across at a small group of adult bison and their young, blocking my path. I keep my distance and we keep our eyes on each other. I step forward a bit. We keep our distance. I step forward a bit. We keep our distance. I step forward a bit. They bolt away, pulling me west, along the trail.
More trails, like tendrils, swing on and off, to the left and right. I choose one toward the lake on my right. An old green bottle sits in the verge and now I walk with a stick and a bottle in my hands and this is what I carry at the Narrows, where the forest gives way to open land and sky between two lakes. I now understand the meaning of the trail’s name, Tawayik, the Cree word for ‘halfway’. Two hundred years ago, this place was the halfway point for the Cree people as they travelled between Beaver Hills hunting camps and Fort Edmonton, where they gained strength from the land and water.
As I sit, over 150 bison slowly surround me. We keep our eyes on each other as I continue my walk. When I arrive back at the threshold, I leave the walking stick for another, and I put the bottle, full of dirt and bugs, in the cup holder of my car. It has something yet to say to me.
After 48 hours without food, I lay in my tent knowing that in the morning, at dawn, I will make my way back to camp and nourishing food. I am no longer worried about food; it will come. It is late-afternoon-early-afternoon-o’clock. I have missed 6 meals and my attention is on a different kind of hunger: What is my soul hungry for? What are my hungers? I wrote:
Today is Tuesday
on the Sacred Mountain
which means I notice
what I’m really hungry for
I have shelter
I am warm enough
my thirst is quenched
(my hunger for food will be satisfied
my true hunger is
for my soul to be seen
for my soul to be seen
for my soul to be seen
by this place
to see Me
to see Others
to see my Place
I’m hungry for Me
here I am
At the center, in the ceremony and smoke as I embark on the wilderness quest, my intention becomes clear. The quest is my tawayik, my time to nourish myself in my halfway. I am 44 years old, stepping away from the first half of my life and into the second. My intention is to receive life’s necessities from the air, water, fire and earth for the rest of my life’s journey and beyond. A question: for what am I a vessel?
I am stepping away from the me I have always known, into the wilderness of me, deeply alone with my self in the wilderness of my place on Earth. I set up my camp, crawl into my sun-hot tent and lay down. I sleep. When I wake I ask Mother Earth for guidance. Her response: patience, gratitude, gentleness, wandering.
The silence of the green bottle is an outer manifestation of the mystery within me.
All I know of the bottle is that it was made in Canada, like me. I wondered: How long have you been sitting in the grass? Who left you there? How old are you? Have animals been playing with you, big and small? Have you always been in one spot? Are you a home for insects?
To sit with self is to sit with mystery, to be patient. It has nothing to do with time. Notice how the trees’ shadows move past you. Notice how the clouds move. Notice the ants at work. Notice how the squirrel startles you. Notice the pattern of the bark on the ponderosa pine, the bear’s claw marks. It has nothing to do with time.
I am white. Angeles Arrien’s reminder that circle and the wilderness quest are part of humanity’s journey is a wave of relief on the shore of my soul. This work of reconnecting to deeper parts of myself is my lineage. I am reaching back into my DNA, reclaiming my indigenous practices.
I sit to rest again, on Mother Earth, in the soft air, under a ponderosa that lets only a few small raindrops through. I name the gifts for this tawayik place, my life’s necessities. My body being. The story of me and my people. Passion and priorities and boundaries. Purpose. A diversity of gifts recognized. Universal love of all things. Each gift a bundle on my belly, as I lay back on the incline of the Sacred Mountain, to imbue the bundles with Self.
Bundles of prayers to bless me and the heart of my little settlement, my tawayik place.
Years ago I conjured the place where my self and my Self meet, under a spruce tree, in an old, red leather chair. You have to take a path through the bush to reach a protected open space under the spruce’s boughs. The Red Chair is my Higher Self, where I can sit any time my self and Self want to talk.
As I sit under a Douglas fir tree in my tawayik place, watching the ants crawl around and over me, I look over at the red camp chair I carried up the Sacred Mountain. I realize that my whole quest camp is the Red Chair. As I sit, looking north and watching a red tailed hawk, I realize my work: host, guide, steward the wisdom of self, others and place with the discipline of abundance and appreciation. Practice and write. Be fully Me.
I’m integrating my Soul right now, embodying it.
So, Higher Self, what do you have to say right now, from the North?
You are hungry for a big epiphany. It all feels small, but that’s because you are on track. You have been making adjustments for years for yourself. Consciously, for seven years. Everything that feels solid now might not be. Know that and appreciate that. Keep checking in with your Self and you will find your way. Follow your curiosity. Wander and explore. Here and everywhere.
What you are looking for will find you when you put your truest self out there. That is your work. It’s that simple.
It sounds simple.
Sort out the dance between self and Self. The only thing to get in the way is you. Not You, but you. We can do it; we can make it simple.
There’s great simplicity in Self. And great simplicity in abundance. Scarcity is about your ego-self, as is fear of deprivation. Enjoy all that is before you. It is for you. For You and you.
The sun is rising, as have I. I have been questing all night, even though I am back at basecamp, well fed. Faces morphing behind my closed eyelids, interspersed with mountains, clouds and city skylines. I recognize the faces but cannot place them.
You see the faces in the stories you heard yesterday in the story council. And their places. You caught their stories in your being, and now you carry them. Anger is transmuted into grace. Anxiety into light. Most importantly, you caught unconditional love, the cosmic life force.
Enjoy. The sun rises. In you.
The number 4 appears twice in my age. Angeles Arrien’s The Four-Fold Way has appeared explicitly in my life and in my being. As she died, a sliver of her work has embedded itself in me as I prepare for my second half of life.
Looking to the North, I look to the warrior within me. I look to the air and winged creatures. I walk.
Looking to the East, I look to the visionary in me. I look to the fire and winged creatures. I stand.
Looking to the West, I look to the teacher in me. I sit. I look to the water and creatures with no limbs.
Looking to the South, I look to the healer in me. I look to the land and legged creatures. I lie down.
The words of my guide: “Lay down on the earth, and let it hold you. Boy, will it ever.”
My fingers make a nest out of the grass. Then they make nests of ponderosa pine needles. I connect the nests to each other to form little cities, for fairies perhaps? Pieces of art? An absent-minded process to be busy instead of bored? Their real purpose: they have me out of my head, wandering. Thinking without thinking.
The sun is almost where the moon was last night when I went to bed. To the left of the spire, the pointy snag reaching for the heavens.
There is a relationship between time and scarcity. Endeavouring to make best use of time, considering it precious, is from a place of scarcity. What if there is an abundance of time? What if all time is a gift? What do I choose then?
It’s time to be open and surrender to what is. Notice what’s happening. Notice what is there to learn. Create the conditions to learn. Allow learning. Allow integration. Judgment and boundaries are not the same thing. Judgment is an emotional declaration, while boundaries are discernment of what feeds the soul, or not. There is no emotional attachment to a boundary. It just is. I can respect my boundaries, and others, without judgment or emotional attachment.
My legs are jittery today, but I feel compelled to explore my camp. I walk around my tent, spiraling outward through bramble and branches and deadfall. Where I can’t get through, the spiral gets wobbly, but I make my way.
A gift: unconditional love from everywhere.
The rain starts to sprinkle, so I spiral back to sit under my tarp, to sit. I cannot see the sky, yet I can feel the clouds. I wait for rain. I notice the layered jigsaw puzzle patterns in ponderosa pine bark. The young trees are not as puzzling. They haven’t lived long enough.
I am young.
Even at 88 I will be young.
On my way home from the quest, I stop to sleep at the edge of the Moyie River. I dream from the edge, watching bison run, then joining them as they ran, then watching them, then running with them.
I sit alone on the Sacred Mountain. I look out on the valley and its edges, and think of my fellow journeyers. I know roughly where they are. I can name them. I am connected to them, yet I know very little about them. I care without knowing. A wonderful circle of care held by the grouse dancer, the spirit leader, the irreverent ukulele, the nest maker, the deeply rooted, the cosmic life force, the star traveler, the courageous heart of the sun saluter, the journeying medicine man, and the spirit steward of this land.
My fingers are at work, gathering grass around me, weaving it together, to make a nest, somewhat like the one above me in the branches of the ponderosa. The nest I noticed when I laid down and looked up.
Synchronicity is the Universe tapping you on the shoulder, inviting you to notice what resonates with you. It’s a portal into your deeper self.
In the weeks after the wilderness quest, three things tapped me on the shoulder. First, the mystical symbols of the wilderness experience were knitting into my life as the four directions and their associated levels of consciousness: mental, emotional, spiritual and physical. Second, a friend named the eyelid imagery: hypnagaia. With a little research, I found the acronym WILD – Wake Induced Lucid Dreams. Third, David Whyte’s articulation, in What to Remember While Waking, of the revelations we have where we no longer recognize ourselves, and the wilderness skills we need when we don’t recognize ‘home’.
The wilderness quest woke me up to the wild within me.
I no longer fall asleep. I walk myself to sleep with the wild in me.
Another dream, in the orary at The Forks in Winnipeg, a place to watch the stars in a 6000 year old gathering place at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. A herd of bison are running through. I am unable to move out of their way. They move around me.
I am worthy of keeping safe.
I trust the strength of abundance within me and the herd.
The morning after our story council, we are going to head home in a few hours. I find myself on the western edge of the valley watching the sunrise, and make its way into the bottom of the valley. A hummingbird finds me and sits on a branch in front of me, then moves to sit behind my left shoulder.
I feel the joy of my grandparents.
I spend the summer in my grandparents’ summer home. For the first time, a hummingbird hovers in front of me. I can see her legs. She shows me where she pauses to sit between feedings. Her nest is a mystery.
My practices become ceremonies. The nests I make of grass and ponderosa pine needles are offerings. A nest for a bottle of water becomes a water ceremony. Nests are the rim of the sacred circles I make to sit in the Red Chair. Nests mark the cardinal points of my sacred circles, to the North, West, East and South. I sit in my nest and explore hurts, name what I need and receive unconditional love.
I sit in my nest, gathering the strength I need to fly out into the world.
I can take this nest wherever I go.
A month after the quest, I set out on a medicine walk to explore a new city, Fredericton. I’m in a forest, at the edge of a stream, with my sacred bundle and the comfort of ceremony returns. There’s a new pattern in how I spend time with myself. A few hours later I am in a park, in the grass while the city plays around me. The squeals of laughter of a basketball game. The exertion and screeches of tennis feats. Families cooling off in a wading pool. People arriving at home after a day’s work. A city recovering after a hurricane tore it apart only a few days ago.
Fredericton’s coat of arms: Noble Daughter of the Forest.
A threshold is a boundary. It is the edge of a contract, or covenant, between my self and my Self. They are most noticeable when I notice my discomfort. It is a place of dialogue between my self and my Self.
Am I here to step through? Am I here to see what I must step away from?
I step into the paradox and tension of a vital relationship: surrender and my spiritual authority.
In the fall, Tawayik Trail and the Narrows calls me back to search out the bison and further incorporate the wilderness quest experience. The bison have moved on, but I know in my bones and being that I am on their land. I found an old poplar tree at the edge of the Narrows and lean my back up against it as I look out onto the coming heat of the day. Its shadow points me in the direction of a cluster of young poplar trees, a place to spend the day in the shade.
As I make my way through a landscape of short grasses and abandoned bison beds, I find a small field of sage – the smell of the wilderness quest threshold. I settle into the bush, at the spring edge of the lake, to sit, to lie down. I watch the clouds. I sleep in the land of the bison.
I recognize a feeling I have had for years: a need to crack myself open, to let something in, as though I was incomplete. I was wrong. It is about letting more of me out. Abundance is within, not without.
As I drifted into sleep the last night of the wilderness quest I heard the green bottle’s message.
I am a vessel for my evolutionary spirit.
I am one of many vessels supporting humanity’s reach for its fullest evolutionary potential by tending to self, others and place.
Whyte, David (2010). What to Remember While Waking: The Disciplines of an Everyday Life. [CD]. Louisville, CO: Sounds True Inc.
About the Author
Beth Sanders MCIP RPP enjoys the wilderness of civilization as a writer and professional city planner. She is president of POPULUS Community Planning Inc., where she works across Canada with government, business, community organizations and citizens striving for cities that serve citizens well. She works with cities at every scale – as an individual, in her family, in neighborhoods and organizations, the city-region, her province, nationally and globally. Beth is on the board of the Canadian Institute of Planners, past president of the Alberta Professional Planners Institute, and co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence Canada. She was co-designer, host and harvester of the global Integral City 2.0 Conference in 2012. She has left the world of senior leadership positions in municipal corporations and now works as a freelance planner while working on her book, Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.