Nature and Spirituality: Obtaining the Property, Part Two

By Howard Clifford

I think most of us have these inner intuitive experiences that direct one’s life. Experiences that are difficult to rationally explain but at the time feels “right” or “wrong”. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. The agreement to purchase this wilderness property was one of these experiences. I could think of numerous logical reasons why we shouldn’t be committing ourselves to what could prove to be a financial disaster, but this inner voice had taken precedence.

Following this inner voice does not imply, at least in my experience, that the path will be easy or trouble free. I continued to worry about the tightness of our financial situation. At this very juncture, the Martins made a statement that changed our lives. I was completely taken back when he told me they were considering moving to the property, and since they had the larger family if we would mind them living in the larger back part of the building.

Immediately I began to wonder about our moving there as well. It now took us about a half an hour to commute to work, but this with add more than an hour each way. How to pitch this to Jean!  I knew she loved the place we were in and our two children were in hockey and other sports. Without the Martins living there, the move would have been unthinkable. Our kids, Chad and Barrie, were good friends with the Martin kids so they would not be as isolated.

Jean was dismayed. I don’t know what all went through her mind, but I suspect that the enthusiasm of the Martin’s, as well as that of myself, Chad and Barrie were contagious and overcame whatever barriers were there. Always the realist, she suggested we rent our home for a year or two in case livingat Flower Station didn’t work out. I loved our home as much as she did and I readily agreed to her proposal. We could not have foreseen how well this decision worked out. As of this date we have had the same renter for over 25 years.

Although both families had a love of wilderness and shared many values neither were sure of how best to care for the land. We were agreed on the principle of applying ecologically sound principles to the management of the forest and to allow others beyond ourselves to benefit its enjoyment. From the beginning we allowed scouts, youth groups, Christie Lake Camps for disadvantaged Children, and others to run their programs on the land.

Bob was active in the Ottawa community and volunteered time to various organizations. This included work with the Aboriginal community and out of this came what I consider to have been a spiritualexperience. Bob told me that the Aboriginal community had indicated they were looking for a place where they could hold a ceremonial sweat lodge. When their elders came to Ottawa for discussionwith political leaders, they would like to have a sweat lodge experience before entering negotiations. Bob wondered what I thought of allowing them to use our land. I had very little knowledge about sweat lodge activities, but could see no reason that we couldn’t make the property available. He indicated that his contact would like to discuss it with me.

I telephoned the person and upon my statement they were welcome to us the property and to just let us know when they were coming, was somewhat taken back by the unexpected response. “Hold on a minute, we can’t decide just like that.”  The person went on to explain that they knew the property had been cut and that the earth might be grieving and if so it might not be suitable for the kind of experience they needed. The person then asked if it would be possible for some of their elders to come and see for themselves.

When they arrived I was curious, but didn’t ask, about how they could tell if the land was grieving. I took them on a tour and kept back a ways so they would be free to talk about what they experienced. I could tell from their body language that they seemed pleased with the land. Then suddenly they stopped in their tracks and a solemn silence fell over them. I wondered what had taken place and then glanced upward. An eagle was circling overhead!  This of course had special meaning in their culture. Neigbours told me that Eagles had in earlier times been part of the landscape. This was the first I had seen. Since then they have slowly returned.

A few minutes later one came back to me and said: “Howard, everything is perfect except for one thing. We need cedar boughs for our ceremony and we haven’t seen any cedar on the property.”  I knew of a cedar swamp not far from where we were that I had not yet ventured. I followed them into the grove and again they stopped in the tracks as if spellbound. I turned the corner and saw the largest cedar I have ever seen. Later I had a forester look at the tree and he said he had seen taller cedars, but never one as large in diameter. His bore was not long enough to reach the centre to make a ring count. Instead he did a bore of a nearby cedar that was old, but obviously much less so. This cedar was about 130 years old and he said the old cedar is at least twice that if not three times. We have had estimates ranging from 250 years to 450 years.

Needless to say finding this ancient cedar combined with the Eagle soaring overhead was much more than they or myself could have expected. Sometime later they got back to me. It was not to run a sweat lodge for leadership coming to Ottawa. They had invited a ‘healer’ to come from northern Ontario to conduct one for Aboriginals who had not experienced one before. It was a way to introduce them and or perhaps their non-Aboriginal spouses to their traditions. I was pleased and honoured when they asked Bob and I to participate as well.

On Friday at work I mentioned the sweat lodge to a colleague at work who had a spiritual bent. She burst out delightedly with “Howard, you are going to have a revelation!”  “Oh yeah, Sure!” On Saturday twenty or more people arrived. Besides Bob, I recognized one Aboriginal lady who worked in the same Federal Government building. We didn’t know each other, but would nod or say hello in passing. In addition to Bob there may have been two or three as old as myself.

The sweat lodge was made from saplings covered with blankets. In the middle of the lodge was around hole in which hot rocks would be brought from the outside fire pit and then water would be poured on the rocks to create the hot steam. Each was given a cedar bough to cover our mouth and nostrils so the hot steam wouldn’t scald our lungs. This unsettled me somewhat as I had a good internal furnace that got me through the coldest weather, but I never liked hot weather. Nevertheless I entered the lodge with anticipation thinking if the rest can take it so can I.

We sat two or three deep crowded tightly together. It happened that I was seated next to the lady who worked in the same office building. Then the blanket was draped over the opening and it was pitch dark. Outside were a couple of helpers who attended the fire and were to bring in the hot rocks as needed.

The healer started off with by telling the group the history and purpose of the sweat lodge experience. She talked about the importance of the four directions in their traditions and how sweat lodges were used for physical and emotional and spiritual healing. The cleansing of the body through the outpouring of sweat would help to make our minds alert and more sensitive to whatever message the ‘Creator’ had in store for us. This part I was somewhat familiar with. What came next totally surprised me. She said that they believed that life and death were part and parcel of the same experience and that their ancestors were very much aware of what we were doing and that they would be pleased that we were partaking of the traditional ways. What surprised me was her statement that not only would they be aware of our ceremony, but may well make contact with us. She said one of the common ways they made contact was through the rushing of Eagle wings. My mind began to race. Was this to be some kind of séance?

Should I even be here? It was almost as if she read my mind. Perhaps others had similar concerns. At any rate, she said anyone who is uncomfortable with this kind of thing need not to worry. The ancestors would never intrude where they were not welcomed.

However if we felt the brushing or an Eagle wing or hear it, we were not to be surprised and to recognize it for what it was. Suddenly in the pitched darkness I heard the sizzling sound of hot water being poured on the rocks and the hot steam was soon penetrating my being. It was hotter than I expected and quickly began to breathe through the cedar bough I had placed over my face. The healer continued to talk and then more rocks were brought in. This took place several times and I soon felt I could not take the heat. We were so tightly packed together there was no way I could make an exit. I suffered in silence and was close to panicking. The only thing that come me was the sense of personal embarrassment I would feel if I interrupted the proceedings. Again it was almost as if she read my mind. She quietly asked if there was a problem over there?  I wasn’t about to admit that I was at my limit if no one else was to admit the same. The lady sitting next to spoke up and said I think Mr. Clifford is feeling a little claustrophobic.

The healer quietly said, “It’s okay, he will be alright.”  It was not with any accompanying feeling of anger or irritation, but my immediate thought was “You don’t know me. How could you possibly know I’ll be alright when I feel I am at my wit’s end?” I withdrew into myself desperately hoping it would be over before I crossed some unknown threshold. Thankfully it was over. Yet I knew it was not over. She had told us there would be three sessions. Following each session we were to walk in a circle around the fire and then come back in. How could I gracefully get out of this?  I was disappointed with myself. I felt like such a wimp. How could the rest tolerate the heat when I couldn’t?

The healer stayed in the lodge and then sent out word that there was someone with a terminal illness and she only wanted a few people back in for this particular session. I had mixed feelings. I was sorry that someone there was so sick and yet could hardly contain myself with the relief I felt in not having to face another.

Soon the half dozen or so that she wanted in had regathered and I stood talking with the others around the fire. Then someone stuck their head out of the lodge and said: “Mr. Clifford, she wants you to come in as well.”  Every fibre within me said No! No! No! Yet there seemed no way out of it. I took my place in the small select circle. The healer turned towards me and said: “I guess you are wondering why I wanted you to come” I replied that I supposed it was like falling off a horse if you didn’t immediately get back on you would never do it again. She smiled and said: “No. I sensed you have a spiritual quality that would be helpful. I want you to join us in sending your prayers and positive thoughts towards the sick person.”  I felt humbled and troubled at the same time. I braced myself to do the best I could. She then assured us that this session would be much shorter. I felt a sigh of relief. This quickly dissipated when she added: “However it will be hotter.”  Hotter!  How could it be any hotter?

For the next couple of minutes I did my best to send positive thoughts, but the heat became so unbearable I lost my concentration and forsook the sick person. I just turned into myself hoping for personal survival. Again as I crawled out of the lodge I felt this deep dissatisfaction with myself. I always felt I was reasonably robust and couldn’t accept this inability to tolerate the heat. The healer came out last and I felt her eyes on me. I looked up and offered a weak apology for not being able to do what she had asked of me. She smiled and said: “You must not feel that way. You did very well for your first time.”

Following the sweat lodge they gathered at the Martin’s section of the house for a potluck. Some were upstairs and some of us sat around the downstairs room. A young man who was a Director of an Aboriginal agency turned to his girlfriend, a university student, and asked her what she had experienced. She replied that it was primeval and had wondered if she was going to survive the heat. My ears picked up. Ah, perhaps I was not alone. “No, I mean what did you experience besides the heat?”  “Nothing, I felt like a prune being dried up.”  He pressed further and said, “Didn’t you hear the Eagle wings?”

At this moment a middle aged man who had to this point been silent looked up in shock and asked: “You too?”  He went on to say that the noise of the wings were so loud he first wondered if the healer had actually brought wings into the lodge, but then felt the wings brush his ear as it flew past. Now my interest was totally aroused. Years of social work practice automatically kicked into gear. Neither appeared emotionally disturbed or to be the type whose imagination would run wild. My initial conclusion was that this was part of their cultural and spiritual tradition and perhaps consciously or unconsciously they were turning to their traditions in search of meaning. It did not matter to be whether what they experienced was objectively true or an internal happening. It was obvious it had been adeeply moving experience to both of them.

A short time later I was approached by a lady, who pointed across the room to a very elderly woman, who I had not seen before and who had not been part of the sweat lodge ceremony. I was informed that she was a highly respected elder and she had asked if I would take her to the top of Blueberry Mountain. I said that the hike was at least 40 minutes each way and the last part was fairly steep. I didn’t think someone her age could do it. I was informed that nevertheless she wanted to try.

With a good deal of skepticism on my part we started off. I offered up some small talk, but she was in her own world and conversation was not to be part of the journey. To my surprise she made it to thetop of Blueberry and began to look in each of the four directions. When she was satisfied it was like she suddenly realized I was there. I still recall how penetrating yet peaceful her eyes appeared as she turned her attention to me, and how much wisdom seemed reflected in her face. I was startled by her brief comment. In a quiet, but confident voice that conveyed a tone of certainty and authority she said: “I don’t have to tell you, do I, that the Creator has given you all this for a purpose.”  It was not so much a question as a statement of fact. The power of the moment left me speechless, but I somehow knew that no answer was expected or needed.

I felt humbled in her presence and as we walked back in silence I wondered how someone from a different culture who had never met me would dare to make such a statement. Most of us do not like to talk about such things and especially not with strangers. Yet she seemed to know that deep down in my soul I already believed that what she said was true.

Monday morning, as I walked into the office, my colleague rushed up and asked if I had received a revelation as she had predicted. I smiled and was about to say: “Yes, I found out what a wimp I am!” Instead I heard a voice coming from within me that I recognized as my own saying: “Yes, I did.”  I couldn’t believe I was saying this. Where in the world was I going with this?  Then just as quickly my mind seemed to empty and replaced by insight. As a social worker I had believed that I didn’t have a prejudicial bone in my body. Now I saw that when I had invited the Aboriginal community to use our property that I simply saw this as offering them a favor. It was the kind of thing we wanted to do with our property and nothing more. It had not even remotely entered my mind that they might be offering me something more importantly to me.

Then I recalled how badly I felt about myself when I was not able to handle the heat or to be much assistance to the healer who had asked that we concentrate our thoughts toward the ill person. Who did I turn to?  Not to Bob. It was the person sitting next to me that tried to keep my anxiety in check.

It was the healer who looked at me in a non-judgmental manner and assured me that I had done fine. No I had not heard or felt Eagle wings, but had new insight about myself. I had also taken baby steps at least to realize that nature was there to teach all of us. I was not to think of myself as teacher. Each person or ‘student’ would bring something special and we are all on the learning journey together. To me this was a revelation and in terms of my own needs perhaps more importantly than if I had heard Eagle wings.