Doing things right means living as though your grandchildren would also be alive, in this land, carrying on the work we’re doing right now, with deepening delight.
Gary Snyder (from the essay “Reinhabitation”)
Walking out the side gat, into the south hayfield to move irrigation around this morning, I passed by a gravestone. In simple letters it said, “white-crowned sparrow,” which were accompanied by a child’s drawing of a bird. Found the songbird a few months back, dead and lying in the grass. We got to it before the ants did and buried it. Two days ago we buried five baby bunnies and a young rattlesnake, in two separate graves, now marked with rocks upon which flowers have been placed.
The practice and act of living-in-place may not begin with death but it certain deepens there. You know that you have settled in a bit when during your daily chores you pass by gravestones on your land. Been here long enough and care deep enough to have burial spots.
These become places to pause and reflect on the life-and-death nature of this thing we call existence. Places to stop and bow or say a prayer or whatever feels like an appropriate acknowledgement. And these are places to remember loved ones and to “remember to remember” that lives come and go, come and go, that living isn’t separate from dying. They are also places where we all, daughter and parent alike, learn to say hello and perhaps most importantly, good bye.
I just killed a rattlesnake. It is the first time I have ever done that and likely the first time that I have killed any snake period, except for the few that I have inadvertently run over with a car. That didn’t feel good, and it doesn’t feel good today.
I found it in one of our rabbit’s cages. The doe, who we call Misty, was up on top of her nest box and nine kits (baby bunnies) were inside. The rattlesnake’s head was inches away from them. I had hoped in the moment, as my heart raced and I got a snake noose (length of pvc pipe with rope going through the middle and tied in a loop) from the shed that I had gotten there early enough to avert major heartache.
We just buried five bunnies, eyes not yet open but furred and getting cuter by the day. My older daughter cried, hard, and so did I, softly. Even though we were raising these rabbits for meat, this still hurt. Still does hurt. I am surprised by my feelings. Very sad and also pissed off. I am also thinking of how many times my kids hang out in the rabbit area and I am so thankful that it was bunnies that got bit. Emotions swirl and an ache sits deep in my chest. A gravestone and flowers mark the place where our bunnies lie and where our tears fell, moistening the dirt.
We buried the snake too. Near a tree so that its body and energy can nurture new growth. I regret killing the snake. I easily could have just put it in a bucket and taken it someplace far enough away to ensure it would not return. That would have felt better. The girls put flowers on top of the burial spot. That felt good.
I am surprised that the snake killed so many kits when it really could only eat one or two I would think. It was not a big rattlesnake – four rattle segments only – and how could it have thought to eat so many? It seems so wasteful, so gluttonous.
Then again, I think of how much I take from the earth, and how wasteful I am. Five little bunnies doesn’t seem so bad when compared with all the death and destruction that our people have wrought on this sweet, dear earth – to the earth itself, to other people and cultures, and to all the other beings that live here with us. Gluttony seems to be our way of life.
So why does this piss me off so much? Why am I so sad right now? Can’t I share this planet with others even if they seem so different from me? Don’t I have room in my heart for all beings even if it feels full to the bursting with sorrow? Why am I so rattled?
I don’t have any answers to these questions right now, and maybe I never will. I think I just need to ask them.
Annual rituals are a wonderful thing. Whether we consciously plan them or not, we all have them. For some it is an annual family trip or a reunion like my family has every July in upstate New York. For others it is a writing or meditation retreat, a sporting event or a car race like it is for my father. Whatever form it takes, we all have them and they give shape to our lives and shape the way we think and behave. How many look forward to that summer trip to the cabin by the lake? We count the days and make sure we have enough vacation time to be able to take it off. We say no to other opportunities in order to make this one thing happen, and we anticipate it. There is something comforting about returning to the same place or activity year after year. It allows us to see how we have changed, if nothing else.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous scientist that teaches at the School for Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, wrote in her delightful book “Braiding Sweetgrass” that “ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention.” Ceremony, ritual, and pilgrimage all have this flavor to them. This is a powerful reminder that the rituals and ceremonies that we engage with have a power to shape our we see and engage with the world.
Having moved to a new place a couple of years ago, I began focusing attention on annual rituals, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. It is the latter that I want to share today. For me a pilgrimage comes into being at the intersection of intention and travel, and may or may not involve ceremony. If it is repeated then it is very much a ritual also. Here in the Methow Valley there are several annual or seasonal ceremonies that we have plugged into and some that we have created ourselves – Summer and Winter Solstices, Autumn and Vernal Equinoxes, Ancestors’ Feast, Coyote Camp, and Native American First Foods ceremonies, to name just a few.
For decades now a friend has been trekking into the mountains to visit a diminutive alpine plant, called the alpine forget-me-not. There is only one place in Washington where it is found and we are lucky to have that place in our backyard, albeit high atop a rocky mountain massif. Last year, I joined this annual botanical pilgrimage and had such a good time that I wanted to do it again this year.
And so we did. He used to visit the plant around July 4th but this year we went in on June 17. Something is changing and the plants are well aware of it. Three of us, two botanists/farmers and myself, spent one night out in the mountains and countless hours exalting at the beauty of the world around us, especially the plants. It was delightful for me to be around such knowledgeable and joyful plant folks.
These alpine plants are hardy folks. They live in a rocky, thin world, where snow lingers long, winds blow fierce, and the growing season is all-too short. In a sense, the pilgrimage is about paying attention to the changes in the world around us, but it is also about honoring the tenacity of life in the high mountains, and to check our own fortitude against theirs.
Annual rituals, ceremonies and pilgrimages are also about “remembering to remember” as Robin Wall Kimmerer said. The forget-me-not pilgrimage then is a perfect way to do this. There is something different about remembering rather than “not forgetting” and I am not quite sure what it is. Perhaps it is that remembering feels more active. And remembering to remember brings attention, intention, and ceremony into being in a way that simply not forgetting does not.
We remember to observe the changes in the world around us and by doing so to notice the changes in ourselves. And we remember that there is a whole world “out there” beyond our own little world and that it is beautiful, vibrant and resilient beyond our imagination. We remember this tiny alpine plant and the beauty it shares with the world and are grateful to be here.