BURDEN BASKET: The Song of Kokopelli
“… the farther you get in the nearer you come to its essence. When you come to the One that gathers all things up into itself, there you must stay.
Kokopelli! Kokopelli! His is a most melodic name. It rolls off the tip of the tongue like a child exiting a slide, its consonants forming notes that rise and fall as the laughter of rivers. Go ahead– say it aloud: Ko-ko-pel-lee. He comes from the South, the direction of intimacy and trust, and among the many gifts he brings is a particular lesson… especially for us.
Yes, his is the figure of the “hunch-backed flute player” carved on the pink and purple cliffs of southwestern mesa and canyonland, from Casa Grandes in Mexico to the San Juan basin, from the California desert to the pueblos of the Rio Grande. Petroglyphs of Kokopelli (carved into the dark surface patina to expose the lighter rock below) and pictographs (daubed on with a brush of pounded plant fiber soaked in earthen pigment) date back to 200 A.D. and earlier, recording his influence on far-flung cultures over a long period of time. He’s most often found with what appears to be a horn or ant-like antennae, a hunched back and a flute in hand, knees in the air as if dancing– a Pied Piper of things wild and free, ecstatic and unruly. More often than not he’ll be found with an enlarged phallus, attesting to his role as seed-bearer and fertility god, as guarantor of new crops in the spring, new life in the bellies of the village women.
Many of the petroglyph spreads I’ve seen place Kokopelli in the company of a plumed snake. According to my Mayan friends the original Kokopellis were emissaries of the feathered serpent-god Quetzalcoatl, whose return is prophesied to coincide with a period of global transformation. They carried gifts with them from the elders of the Maya of southern Mexico and Guatemala to the “northern” peoples (the Anasazi and Mogollon peoples, later known as the Hopi and Pueblo). These gifts are said to include the four sacred colors of which Black Elk spoke some four centuries later, pottery making techniques and the seeds to grow corn. Archaeologists have documented this “sudden infusion,” with no mention of such deliberate insemination. These ancient emissaries are said to have been vested with many of the qualities of a god and the skills of a sorcerer, including the powers to predict, to heal, and to insure fertility among all those they bless with a visit.
At the Hopi village of Oraibi, Kokopelli is said to carry a bag full of deerskin shirts to trade for wives. Other Hopi stories tell of his wife, Kokopelli-mana, exciting the villages into a night of passionate sex with the teasing gestures of her dance. Whenever we find Kokopelli-mana carved on the cliffs, she’s positioned directly behind her mate, holding his back as if she were attached, supporting his every act. At San Ildefonso, he’s known as a wandering minstrel with a sack of music on his back, trading new songs for old ones. Listen to these stories. Burnished on lava-burnt boulders long before genetic-damaging nuclear tests and radioactive waste, toxic chemicals and deadly street drugs, the hump on Kokopelli is obviously no hunched back, no deformity. It is, rather, his burden basket.
“As I walk through the winter forest, the courage that I sense is a quiet courage, not the courage for great heroic deeds, but for humility to live with loss. We need such courage to face those losses and see in them the source of new visions: a courage to nourish the seed beneath the snow.”
Both physical and metaphorical, the “burden basket” is yet another shared concept common to a wide range of primal cultures. The basket may contain nothing but the personal quandaries or seemingly overwhelming responsibilities of an individual’s life, or be filled all the way to the top instead, brimming with the joy, needs and anguish of an entire planet as experienced by each sensitized bearer. Its freight is a product of our emotional engagement, and the degree of sensory input we allow access to our psyches. The more conscious, alert and caring the person, the heavier the load. The more we allow the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to feel, the more we pack into the basket.
Enter the cooing of babies, the weight of parental relationship, the redeeming reality of familial love. A lifetime of lessons. Accomplishment. Dreams of the night and visions of the day. The experience of and desire for smells and sights, new sounds and a familiar touch. The passion for fruit. The coming and going of lovers, and the lessons they each leave behind. People and places and ideas we become attached to, stored carefully where we can find them. Kisses and art next to laughter and sighs, retrievable memories at the top, with precious hope lying deepest in the basket.
But do leave room for disappointment and the strength it engenders. For personal failure and the humility that comes with it. For the certainty of bodily death, the frustration of failed campaigns to save the life of the planet, the silent screams of humanity’s unrealized dreams. Enter the dulled and practiced laughs of those pretending to be happy, while a persistent emptiness eats at their guts. Enter the unwanted children you see propping up lamp posts on your way to work. Add the prayers of the battered wife, the suicidal husband, the hopeful actress who never really gets to live the roles she has no hand in writing. Add the taste of chemicals in the water. The taste of defeat. The scent of lost lovers. The noxious odor of fumes emanating from the foundry, the refinery. the smelter, the paper mill, the megalithic sewage plant, the tar-truck, the congested freeway, and the garbage cans lined up like silent tin soldiers on the street.
There is no averting it, once witness
the brilliant blooming of the flower
or the blood beneath the tire-
the weight of wisdom,
that view from all sides,
coming home to serve a troubled mind.
Then if we add conscious identification with the non-human world, the basket strains at the seams, stuffed with the flight of birds and the celebrations of indominatable coyotes, the desires of elk in Fall, the contentment of shellfish, the anxious calling of the salmon. Followed for balance and truth by mountains groaning at the hands of strip mines, earth pierced by fence posts and oil wells, leveled for golf courses and condominiums. Pack it with the majority of rivers, dying behind dams. With creatures big and small, shot, trapped and poisoned, crushed by unfeeling cars and trucks, denied more and more habitat until faced with the complete and irreversible extinction of their kind. For the truly sensitive, for the conscious and awakened examples of humanity making use of every unhampered sense, every vital instinct– it can be one heavy basket. Those who see and feel enough, those given to love, truly can be said to carry the weight of the world. On willing shoulders.
The key word here is willing. One usually has the option of “keeping it light,” of ignoring the gravity of unfolding events while suppressing intuition, instinct and emotion. In modern society illusions receive widespread support, and denial is seen as an acceptable way of dealing. On the other hand, for the most conscious and engaged the basket may house the accumulative transgressions of our kind, the mistakes of the past and the formidable weight of our future choices. Yet always it’s a load we voluntarily pick up and carry. Unlike the powerful metaphor of the cross, no authority figure assigns the burden of the basket, no vested human judge sentences us to carry ponderous awareness through the streets of a new Jerusalem. For Kokopelli, the flowers are as important as the crown of thorns they fell from. They’re to be worn not on the forehead, but as pointed messages of awakeness on those prickly bushes that line the trails of our mortal lives. The basket also differs from the the cross by being a testament to aware, voluntary participation rather than to blind obedience. But both speak of the essential ingredient, devotion. For Kokopelli, for the nonhuman world and for primal humanity that devotion is to sacred life, to flesh and God in unbroken unity. Sensory, emotional and spiritual interaction with the rest of the Earth-body in a glad and holy communion. The lifting of the basket is a matter of tuning-in to the ecstasy as well as the agony of uninsulated, unmitigated perception. It is willing participation in destiny, the response-ability inherent in consciousness, and the acceptable consequences of our acts of love.
The nice thing about the basket is that you can always put it down when you need to. Nobody is watching and besides, you were the one who put it on in the first place. You’re trying to do everything on your list, but who wrote the list, after all? Lay down the cross for even a minute and the Roman Centurians, the dream police, the eye-in-the-sky will see to your immediate punishment. The burden basket is a different story altogether. Set it down, and be assured you will be the first to know when you’ve rested enough, and when the time has come to move ahead with it again. There’s no way to post a basket in the ground, or to nail you to it. “This basket is made for walking.” When you’re not moving, in simply lies in full view in the corner. When it is really felt is when you move with it, carrying out the course of action it inspired in you, instigating through you the necessary cures to the specific malaise.
Ignorance, the developed ability to ignore and to suppress, is a successful defense against the highs and lows of a more receptive existence. The result is at least a muddling and greying, a temporary objectification, an emotional distancing from threats and challenges. While we often hear about the “blissfully ignorant” rural underclass, it is more often the educated, the financially secure, and the intellectuals who are best at this deliberate obfuscation of reality. With sufficient effort one can avoid most primal, direct experience up until the imposing physicality of the hospital ward, and our society can ignore the worsening condition of the natural world right up until the moment when it impinges on the survivability of our own kind. The basket is a mixed-blessing, containing both the high price and ultimate reward for our willingness to feel– our willingness to share a living world’s pleasure and pain, our inspiration to actively and accordingly respond.
Wherever the image of Kokopelli is found, with bent, laden back and flute in hand– cast into silver earrings, misappropriated for trendy cafe menus or carved into crimson canyon rock– a single message cries out: No matter how heavy the load, one must dance their dance, live their song.
To fail to enjoin is often to fail to enjoy. Interestingly enough, those who eschew the burden of the basket are the least likely to dance, the least likely to fly. But for the load-bearers every movement is a dance, gracefully and powerfully making their way between the obstacles and pitfalls, delights and desires of their destined paths. For basket wearer, every utterance is a sincere demonstration, every shout both an urgent warning and exclamation of gladness. Glee that reverberates off of looming high-rises, as off these rising Anasazi cliffs.
As I write this we mindfully set a match to the wood in the fire circle, practicing the vulnerable widening of perception, the opening up of our individual baskets to the instructive world around us. Tonight is a night of power, and we remain vigilant for the arrival of new experience, new revelation, new depths of compassion to pack in with all the rest. Off to the side of us, just beyond the reach of firelight, we feel a certain power entertaining the darkness. Somehow, from his place of concealment he’s able to excite our physical and spiritual engagement. Able to encourage the intensity of our assigned quests. It is the spirit of Kokopelli, providing us with a magical, visual metaphor. Setting the example of a basket so heavy. And a heart so big.
The Hummingbird: Tozcatl, One Who Brings Life
“I am the Shining One— bird, warrior and wizard. I have no equal— not even one. Never in vain do I wage nightly battle— for mine is the magic that brings back the sun!”
-Aztec song for Huitzitzilopochtli
There’s a particular cave where I spend much of my time- a shallow hollow blown out of solid volcanic rock, and the hands that sculpted it were New Mexico’s wind-lashed rains. The gentle inward slope of the walls create the most marvelous effect, a natural amphitheater amplifying every diverse sound of this magical canyon. When the breeze is just right, the giggling of water over river-rock fills its humble maw. The calls of contented shorebirds are lifted from the canyon bottom like reverberations off a drum head, are pocketed in the earthen womb, penetrate my sleeping mind, and serve as the soundtrack to my dreams.
Most of my moments in this cave seem eternal, free of the fitful passage of linear time, absent the burden of constant comment, of abusive self-consciousness, of endless wordy thoughts. Usually my mind is as clear here as the crystal sky suspended above this pilgrim’s rock, my animal being opened to a panoply of sensation, to the infusions of instinct rising from the bedrock of the self. It’s particularly pitiful when I give in to the soap opera of the brain, set upon by the “ten thousand words” screaming to be heard one above the other, blending into a single high pitched drone like Sartre’s Furies. I’m drawn down inside myself as if by some clever ruse, until I no longer notice the flowering stalks of the yucca crisscrossing against the turquoise horizon, or acknowledge the plaintive cry of the puma a single ridge away. I become possessed by past and future, my consciousness migrating to places other than here and now, falling head-first into the hall of mirrors, the labyrinth of the narrow self. I see and hear nothing that’s really here, nothing that surrounds and touches me. I become as one asleep, delivered to a busy dream, sacrificed to hubris, life losing out to reflections of life. It’s at such times that it comes, redirecting my attention, commanding my presence.
Its appearances are always unexpected, a brilliant visage appearing suddenly out of nowhere, roaring in place with an uncanny avian vibrato. It will swoop in front of me, inches from my face, at once vanquishing all images and concerns not physically embodied in the hallowed moment, the present, the place. Like the lively snapping of the fingers, it opens my eyes to a world of pertinence and song, delivers me back to divine presence, to Nature, to now. With each of its visits my heart triples its rhythm, sitting up to behold a veritable explosion of sparkling gemstone colors. It is thus that one more day my sun will have risen, on the wings of the pochtli, the jeweled sorcerer, the hummingbird.
The first gift of the hummers is that of enlivened experience, for they are known as “the ones who bring life.” In a flash they are there, right in front of us, demanding our immediate concentration. “Wake up!,” they tell us, with their wildly beating wings, alerting us to the intensity of the present and the joy of simple existence. Through the delightful mediums of beauty and shock the hummingbird brings us “to our senses,” into a state of heightened awareness through the stimulating chemistry of awe and surprise. The hummer is a warrior, but it will not hurt you. Its battle is with the busied darkness dimming your awareness and clouding your mind.
For the Toltecs of ancient Mexico, the word for warrior and bird were the same: Tozcatl— meaning “life bringer.” Spreading the pollen from flower to flower with its long beak. Stimulating the production of grain seeds and fruit. Seeming to usher in the return of yet another rainy season to a thirsty land. Rain bringer. Life bringer. In Navajo, it is Da-hi-tu-hi, “one-who-brings-new-life.”
Hummers can be seen almost any summer evening in their range, diving madly at one another in what the Aztecs believed to be mock battles. Each day they would practice for nightfall, and the renewal of their war against the powers of darkness. According to this legend if we ever lost the birds’ help, if we ever let them go extinct, the sun would no longer rise from above the mystic mountains— and human consciousness would be doomed to perpetually look inward through an obfuscating dark.
The Aztecs tell a story of when they were a nomadic people in search of a new home-site. Their leader was a great warrior named Huitzitzil, “Shining-One-With-The-Long-Weapon,” attesting to his prowess with a spear. He wore arm bands and bracelets made of the iridescent feathers of the hummingbird, talismans for success in love and war. They soon found themselves under attack, and a great battle ensued. In time they fought off the much larger tribe, but not before the great warrior had taken an arrow through the heart. They were amazed to see a small and proud emerald bird, spiraling upwards from where his body had been. He’d taken the form of the combative little hummer, and would be known ever after by the spirit name of Huitzitzlopochtli. From that time on, the spirits of all those people and creatures killed while defending their homeland would be reborn to take flight as hummingbirds. They’d be treated to fields of pollen-laden flowers, while preparing for dusk and the always fateful struggle with oblivion.
For all of us the appearance of hummers is like a flash cube going off, a purposeful display of luminescence. They bring a brief defeat for noisesome internal dialogue, the temporary elimination of those distracting pictures from the past and busy plans for the future. “Lighten up!,” they seem to say. The effect is like a splash of cold creek water on our faces, only it’s a splash of chilling light instead.
It’s light interpreted through a spectrum of ever-changing color, crystalline hues shimmering and twinkling in the brightness of day. The first Europeans to land in the “New World” were amazed at the bird’s tiny size and the effervescent play of rainbows in their miniature plumage:
“For color shee is glorious as the Rainbowe, as shee flies shee makes a little humming noise like a humble bee; wherefore shee is called Humbird.”
-William Wood (New England Prospects, 1634)
The Mayans told of how Xo-ma-xamil’s coat of many colors came as gifts from the other birds of the forest, including the magical Quetzal. The great Sun was pledged to anoint each hummer with a solar blessing. As viewed in the shade of a tree or during an overcast day the hummers appear decidedly gray, without a hint of their regal palate. Many of the more brilliant feathers depend on the sun’s touch to bring out the shifting purples, reds and gold. The neck and cap feathers are actually black, with a fascinating layer of clear material filled with microscopic bubbles of air. This layer bends and refracts sunlight, splitting into its component spectrum and bouncing them back at the observer. They reflect the fanciful colors of the blossoms they feed from, pushing their noses deep into the flower’s tight interior with great exuberance and joy.
There always seem to be some who prefer to sing, and others who would rather dance. The hummer is a dancer, transporting its show on blazing, twirling wings. Its flight patterns are perfectly choreographed ballets with aerial pirouettes, dramatic stops and the motionless building of suspense. It rockets fifty feet in the air, plummets to within inches of the ground, maneuvers unerringly through the thick foliage of a bush, and hovers effortlessly a foot from your head. It establishes its territory and attracts its mate with hushed movement rather than competing songs of threat and allure. Modern civilization could learn a thing or two from its ability to brake, and then immediately angle off in a more advantageous direction.
This talent for hovering in place, mid-air, is shared by few other creatures. Of these, both hummingbirds and bumblebees are found only in this hemisphere. Of three hundred and forty-some species of hummer, most live close to the equator, and over half of these are in South America. Ecuador has over a hundred and sixty kinds, more than any other country, and all of which are being threatened by government sponsored development in combination with the multinational oil industry. While some migrate to the far north and south, most remain in the tropical and temperate zones where the perennial flowers bloom.
To the early Spanish invaders it was Colibre’, adapted from the Taino (Carib) word for “bird of the sun god,” adapted by the Germans into kolibre and the Dutch into kolibrielje. In the Spanish colonies it was likely to be called a picaflor (“piercer of flowers”), and one still hear’s chupamyrta (“sipper of myrtle”) in the southwest where I live. To the Portuguese-speaking colonists of Brazil it was a “flower kisser,” beija-flor, while one indigenous tribe preferred “rays of the sun,” Ourissia.
Tozcatl, “the one who brings life,” is also the legendary bringer of wind and water to a parched land, igniting those blazing blossoms that provide its sustenance. You can find the hummer painted on the water vessels of certain peyote cults, or even formed in fire pit ashes after an all night session with the wise Spirit of the cactus. The jeweled masters seem to fly in on the first wind-swept clouds, dropping to the earth with chatoyant sheets of rain. They seem to paint the ground with flowers with each sweep of their graceful tails— a joyous reminder of the rewards of heightened sensitivity, the pleasures of sensual immersion.
In a related Pima story it is the hummer, Vipisimal, who saves the people from the effects of a long drought, arousing the wind and rain spirits and bringing them back to the land of the people. Sometimes, however, these monsoons come sooner and crash harder than expected, soaking the topsoil, swelling every rivulet into impatient streams, dyeing the rivers brown and prompting them over the banks that would contain them. Such a scouring evokes obvious spiritual parallels, the earthen nature exceeding our attempts to control it, washing away our pretension and artifice, drowning our constructs, and depositing the seeds of new life in the soil it leaves behind. The Pima tell as well of an immense flood and the hummer who led them to land. It is said that if any harm is allowed to come to the species, the floodwaters will return and finally cleanse the Earth of the transgressors.
For the Chayma of Peru, the many hummers were considered to be the flitting souls of their ancestors, and to harm them was strictly taboo. While they would kill many other species for the feathers for their ceremonial garments, the hummingbird was to be left unharmed. Legend has it that a particular band of Chayma were so elated after a successful battle that they ignored the prohibition, slaughtering dozens of the tiny hummers for their skins in preparation for a victory celebration. As soon as the feathered dancers circled the ground beneath them began to quake, and sudden fissures erupted with boiling tar from the bowels of Mother Earth. They were sucked into its molten depths, a tar pit that one can still see in the hills of that enchanted island— a clear warning of the bad things that must surely follow the disappearance of the teachers of awakeness, the Bringers of Life.
Quick to investigate anything brightly colored, hummers often zoom in and out of the open windows of my cabin. They poke at the altar candles, tease the crimson beads on a Hourani necklace, and are completely baffled by the window ornament of dried flowers mounted in cut beveled glass. I always feel a little guilty for fooling them this way, expending some of their precious metabolic energy frustrated by faux flora.
One Spring morning it was too cool yet to open all the windows, but far too sweet (smelling and sounding!) for me not to open at least one. An unfortunate hummer made it in, but was then unable to find the only way back out. For what seemed like twenty minutes (but was probably only an anxious few!) the little warrior of the sun repeatedly battered its fragile body against the ungiving panes. I tried in vain to get another window open and direct it out it, and was finally moved to chance picking it up as it lay in the corner of the sill, panting and heaving. Knowing how hard and fast their hearts beat normally, I was afraid it was having a heart-attack while I stood by helplessly. Ever-so-carefully I slipped my fingers around it like a basket and carried it outside. Sitting it in the shade of a juniper tree I watched in horror as it ceased breathing altogether, and its eyes steadily closed.
I sat down in the grass as it seemed to stiffen and discolor. I was ashamed. It was my house that had killed it. It was the same glass I love to look at the Kachina Cliffs through, tricking the Life Bringer into challenging the illusion until it killed it. I wondered what song to sing for it, what prayers of love and apology to say over its stilled form. Should I honor it by saving the magic plumage, wear it like the warriors of old to insure an enlivened journey? Or should I bury it intact, with no further violation? I rose and rubbed my legs to get the circulation going in them again. I was on the edge of losing myself to repetitious thought, self-incrimination, should-have-beens and will-be-next-times. On the edge of forgetting where I was, and the ecstatic sensation of being. I was ready to fall back into my mind, exiting reality at the whim of sorrow— when it came. It spun before me once more, wound-up and whirring, revved-up and revived, dancing skyward again! It was alive, this bringer of light, bringer of life. Huitzitzilopochtli taken wing.
Call it pulling out of shock or “torpor,” the hummer’s proven ability to slow down their metabolic rate almost to nothing in reaction to food scarcity, frigid weather or direct threat…
…or call it a miracle instead. Tozcatl, the hummingbird, was alive.
And thankfully, so was I.
The Walking Quest
“ Often as I wander, there are dream-like tinges when life seems impossibly
strange and unreal. I think it is, too, except that most people have so
dulled their senses that they do not realize it. “
– Everett Ruess 1934
The vision sought by the primal peoples of all races is the unobstructed view of our “self” in seamless relation to all that is. When the seeker looks to the sky, it remains a look within, a submersion into those clear, luminous spaces beneath the busy surface. It’s an all encompassing “view” that is sought, a perspective from both the heights and depths, simultaneously— the wordless experience of our organic/spiritual continuity, and the nature of our wild and true selves.
A quest can be either active or still, so long as the rational, verbose mind does not impair the view—the vision. My deep ecology quests involve both walking meditations and solo “sits.” With either method the emphasis is on one’s reawakening, on heightened perceptivity, and on our reconnection with instinct, Spirit, and the spirits and guidance of other lifeforms. I can inspire, instigate or incite, but I cannot intermediate. The process begins with the “calling.” We accelerate our efforts, while slowing down the pace of our minds and the tempo of our wilderness walks.
When the mind is centered on a destination, it’s possible to traverse the most beautiful country and yet never really be present there— fully aware, present, alive. Programmed to watch for the spectacular, we easily lose touch with the details of the moment, the subtle orchestration of micro-fauna and flora, the nuances of rock matrix and wistful cloud patterns, the variations in temperature between canyon bottom and ridge top. We’re instructed in what to look for in our travel guides. Every monument, every “attraction” marked upon our map becomes a goal to be reached, to the neglect of the sights and sensations, miracles and miles that separate one from the next. We’re told what’s worth seeing, hardened lava flows, majestic waterfalls and the view from the highest peak. We’re quick to fill the hours between with thoughts of past and future, reliving the high points of yesterday’s experience while imagining the scene of our next objective. What we miss in the process is here and now, the experience of wonder and completion, thought-less, freed from the distraction of constant commentary.
The fastest way between two points is aboard a jet plane. One can see from one end of the Rockies to the other in a matter of a few short hours, but paying the price for the distance gained with a palpable loss of intimacy and detail. Taking a car is considerably slower, yet we are still separated from the world by our speed, shielded from intimate knowledge of place by an envelope of glass and steel. Any cowboy can tell you that you see more from horseback, learning to know the land through its smells as well as sights, riding through an aromatic panoply of wild flowers and rain-soaked moss. Yet even they are kept apart by their means of movement, saddle-bound, suspended several feet above the pliant touch of earth, the clown dance of the dung beetle, and the legends told in the splintered bone and rent flesh of bear or wolf scat. We can hear nothing at all from the pneumatically sealed cabin of an airliner, and little over the patent roar of tires on asphalt. But even traveling horseback there are many sounds we miss. The song of the wind in the tallest trees and the sweet whistle of dove wings are lost beneath the crush of hoof beats. It’s obvious that one sees more, hears more, feels more afoot. How many times have we described a journey in the same terminology as the “frequent flyer”— the number of National Parks we’ve walked, the total miles covered in a day, the amount of trips completed? Revelatory (as opposed to aesthetic) places depend on non-intellectual perception. As soon as you give up “deciding” where to go the places of power will call to you, draw you like filings to a magnet.
In an earlier time when predatory humans were themselves stalked by now extinct carnivores, and even today in the wilder parts of this continent, the price for our being oblivious could be our obliteration. But on today’s safely marked trails, and with the extirpation of the last mammals dangerous enough to be a risk to us, it’s now possible to sleepwalk through some designated wilderness areas without really making contact with them. The reverse, the antidote, is “Dreamtime”— the hyperawareness of the Australian Aboriginal “walkabout,” and the province of magic.
For the fullest understanding and most complete enjoyment of any hike, we would do well to look to those indigenous peoples still in touch with the land, inseparable, intense. And to the primal man and woman inside us all. For Aborigine the Dreamtime is reality. Spirit and matter are one. Walkabout is a journey that must be taken alone, a return sojourn to who we really are. It’s submersion into sensation, freed of trivial comfort and the solace of companionship. Although they gather sustenance along the way, it’s not a journey in search of food. Walkabout can be a rite of passage into adulthood, marriage or the onset of old age, but is first and foremost a pilgrimage to our wilder, natural self. To where we really are, now! A journey home.
The aboriginal child knows hundreds of medicinal and edible plants by an early age. They learn not only their potential human use, but their spirit, lessons, and song. They’re taught to recognize the rhythmic and melodic principles underlying all processes of nature. From the honeybee’s busy pantomime, communicating the location of the sweetest flowers, to the crystalline notes of the spring thaw, every element of the nonhuman world is signified and elevated by its individual song. Every animal is recognized as a totem, a protective spirit whose traits you emulate, and to whose clan you belong. Each and every place, no matter how seemingly undistinguished or common, has its own songs passed from generation to generation and tribe to tribe. In them the spirits of Australia’s rocks and rivers are described in detail, their wild adventures and ultimate purpose. To cross the continent, one need first learn these songs of place, musical topographic maps illustrating the distances between two points, the water holes and difficult passages. In this way, the Aborigines sing themselves from mountain to plains, fully in their bodies, joyously awake, always “in place.”
While the Aborigines revered place, they once had no concept of property. The land belonged to the spirits of their ancestors and the animals still living there. The English arrivals, busily converting Australia into a penal colony, looked down on the indigenous peoples for their “nudity, uncleanliness and promiscuity.” It was, however, primarily their lack of both a social hierarchy and a concept of land ownership that earned them the contempt of the invading culture. For over forty thousands years they’d lived a nomadic lifestyle, constantly moving within the invisible boundaries of large tribal territories. Early missionaries attempting to make farmers out of them were amazed that they slept outside of the houses they’d provided, promptly lost the boats left there for them, and instead just “walked about in the bush.” As it had always been, their lives were defined not by settlements, but by walks.
It was the mark of the European’s arrogance that they described the Aborigines as having no religion. With no churches, altars or anointed priests, the regional historian John Hunter couldn’t find “anything like an object of adoration; neither the sun, the moon, nor stars seem to take up more of their attention, than they do that of any of the other animals.” He failed to notice the sense of the sacred that permeated their culture, a sacredness attributed to all of the natural cosmos equally. Rather than enshrining certain objects in some temple, they took their concept of sacrament with them on their constant walks between intimately familiar places. They made no distinction between “real” and mythical, between the consecrated and the profane. The spirits of all the plants and animals were woven tightly together by the footpaths of Walkabout.
The Aborigine reaped the benefits of this way of walking, this way of being. Without even the rudiments of technology, the survival of these nomads was dependent on great personal skill and the accumulative wisdom of their clan elders. Never having developed the bow and arrow, let alone the gun, the primal hunter relied on his ability to read the most obscure signs of game in the shifting crimson dust, in disturbed foliage and upturned rocks. The reward for a thorough understanding of plant distribution and seasons, animal behavior, migration, feeding and nesting— was survival. A dignified survival that lasted from the earliest times until the slaughter of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They succumbed by the thousands to the unfamiliar: diseases, bullets, and rum. Livestock grazing by the masters and descendants of penal colonies did more than anything else to erode the capacity of the land to sustain its natives. Thus informed, it becomes easier to appreciate the first recorded words of the coastal Aboriginies, the Iona: “Warra! Warra!.” they shouted. “Go away! Go away!
History may be “written by the victor,” but true wisdom remains the unwritten legacy of the land, and of its wordless inhabitants. Each bend in the trail is the turning of the page. Each unhurried step reveals a new discovery, filling us with humility as well as excitement, amazement and awe. What is often dismissed today as “eco-mysticism” was once a common exercise, the advanced condition of awakeness, and sacred world view of primal mankind. With practice we can still learn the myriad lessons nature provides.
The walker must neither speak nor surrender to internal dialogue. Fixing eyes close ahead, while focusing on no single object, the world appears as it really is: animate and complete. Civilized consciousness gives way to the flow, the endless unfolding of present time. In the Taoist tradition of Tibet and Nepal, this is called “lung-gom,” the way of the wind. Every sound vibrates with a new intensity, every color stands out newly washed, making the whole body smile in recognition. In this way, there are no obstacles to “overcome,” no rivers to “bag,” no peaks to “conquer.” We experience life without the handicap of personal fears, cultural expectations or civilized constructs. Everything appears as itself, magic and alive!
The wild, essential spirit of humanity is out there even now, on walkabout, way out there, on that endless savanna within. If we start to really look when we hike, really listen, smell and touch, we’ll have already reached a destination more vital than any feature in a guide book, or any point on a map.
We will find, like the rest of unhobbled nature, our own true selves.