Excerpt from Calan’s Eden
by L.G.Cullens 2016
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” ~ Khalil Gibran
Wearing only khaki shorts and sandals on a sweltering day, I’m trying to help my wife as best I can in the garden. The dog snoozing in the shade has more sense. A faintness coming over me, I brace on my canes, and with a stabbing chest pain involuntarily groan. My legs buckling, and my wife yelling “Calan?” as she and the dog rush to my aid, dissolves in my swirling perception. Why am I seated cross-legged on a buffalo hide by a smoldering fire, feeling a mixture of déjà vu and trepidation?
Mesmerized by smoke tendrils amongst dancing dust, my mind is screaming. How in this age can I rationally embrace what seems a primitive Medicine Lodge, one of interlaced branches and grasses supported by lodge poles, let alone the company of others clad in animal skins decorated with dyed porcupine quills, the males with painted faces? These very real people aren’t Hollywood types, but more primitive, stockier and shorter, with lower hairlines, prominent cheek bones, and hawkish noses, giving their faces a more rounded, wild look. Their set back eyes seem unfocused, as if engrossed in whatever ceremony is in progress. Even the odors are more earthy, which is likely why the dirt floor has a fresh cushion of pungent pine needles. More unsettling, I don’t see an entranceway.
My senses are in overdrive, yet curiously the debilitating pain I’ve lived with is absent, I have no sensation of warmth or coolness, and my aged skin and gnarled limbs have a revitalized glow. My thinking seems clear also, but that’s something we imagine even when we’re conscious. All so real, yet surreal with flickering shadows independent of movement, and the subtle luminescence being more an aura of this inner sanctum than having a source.
This has to be an illusion. I’m not into the idea of other time dimensions, nor strange shadows being other presences. It damned well better not be one of those so-called dying visions that have been claimed after being resuscitated. My ideal of such is running with past canine companions, through endless pastures and forests teeming with wildlife, not this. Even so, I daren’t stir lest I break whatever connection I’m experiencing, inviting nothingness.
As the drum, hoof rattle, eagle bone whistle, incantation, and rhythmic movement wane, my perception rends further when an ancient figure materializes across from me. A slight man with leathery, wrinkled skin, more primitive than the others. His eyes are the most striking feature, like lustrous black pearls, seeing all, but divulging no feeling. When he begins speaking in a language beyond time somehow I understand, as if the unknown words weave images in my mind that dance before my eyes. Stranger though, is that I don’t see his lips move.
The language is at first distracting, but the voice is quietly lulling with a ring of familiarity in what is imparted. No wonder, in beginning with when the Earth was fire, then flooded, then Turtle Island formed. I hearken back to elders’ legend telling in my youth on the reservation, but the imagery in my mind’s eye seems more vivid these many years later. With the passing of years, and broader cultural influences, I’ve shrugged off literal acceptance of belief-based thinking. Living so close to Nature as our forebears did though, it’s easy to understand their more realistic focus on the connectedness of all life. Something we seem to have lost sight of in thinking we’re above it. But hey, what’s the point here? It’s a little late to be messing with this old fart’s mindset.
It’s creepy how my thoughts flow in this place, as if stirred by an unknown hand. My consciousness seems to be swirling in a cauldron of surreality, producing the illusion of seeing through the veil of physical existence or some such baloney. This is crazy. Shuddering inwardly, I ought to feel the urge to scream, yet my fearfulness doesn’t seem real. The stoic figure across from me emanating calm, it’s more like being immersed in a book I can’t tear away from.
As in my youth, the ancient one relates how the Great Mystery created all life forms in mutually beneficial balance. Avoiding a literal interpretation, I’m reminded of how we’ve progressed to more complex scientific theories of how life began. To me, in manner of conveyance the ancient legends are akin to belief teachings today — keeping it simple for all to grasp, with supernatural phenomenon thrown in here and there for awe. But in advancing we seem to be disconnecting in believing we alone are special. Whoa, where am I getting off to, and what’s the point? I’m sure I’m not here against my will for an intellectual discussion. My mind is wandering into troubling waters.
This physical life thing has always been troubling to me. I’m not a philosopher, and going there roils my thoughts in trying to get my mind around the harrowing aspect of this grand design, that of life being fueled by life. I get the balance needed for the continuum of life bit, but does it have to be mostly at the expense of the individual? No wonder so many have mentally distanced themselves. The luminescence in this inner sanctum flickers as if in a silent electrical storm. What? I’m not allowed my own thoughts here?
The imagery appearing before me is our little blue canoe, with life blossoming, shrinking, and blossoming even more, over and over, evolving in geologic cycles as life forms affect each other and their habitat. A late arrival is humankind, whose increasingly destabilizing footprint accelerates faster than any before. Then unexpectantly the imagery dissolves. My irritation flaring in not seeing more, the luminescence in the lodge briefly erupts like a sparkler. Did I piss someone or something off? Welcome to the club.
The ancient speaker now allegorizing balance, with a legend about a council between humans and their cousins to further respect for each others’ needs. This supposedly in a distant time when they could communicate with each other, yeah right. Before me an image of a council fire materializes, around which man, eagle, rabbit, crow, bear, and all manner of animal, fish, foul and reptile are present. Are the plants part of the council? What a ruckus, and very strange with the fish being out of the water yet buoyant as it were. There are even birds above, which warps the mind with the contradiction of this confining space. I’m wryly thinking, yeah, so where are the insects, when I notice a large scorpion crawling on my leg. Ooook, any ol’ invertebrate will do, you can get on back to the council now please.
The reality of the image is increasingly disquieting, as others in the lodge are blending in, exhibiting shapeshifting powers I know aren’t physically possible. Even the ancient speaker briefly takes the form of a gray wolf. Is something beyond my comprehension influencing my mind in what I see? A voice in the back of my mind is crying out in distress, what the hell is going on?
Noticing a large trout close by, staring at me with cold eyes (my mind has to be out to lunch), brings to mind a mountain trek where the lake spirits were less than supportive. Then the image of a passed on canine companion appears, calming my irritation, and giving rise to the credibility of some form of communication possible.
Still there’s the lulling familiarity with elders’ teachings, buried all these years in the effort of getting by. I know the elders’ legends aren’t centered on worshiping physical forms, but rather a belief analogous to animism. Various spirits were sought out for guidance, protection, and augmenting prowess, in similar fashion to today’s belief practices thinking they’re going straight to the source. All life originates from stardust, so why can’t other life forms have spirits if one believes humans do? But then in the the belief realm rationality is suspended. Damn, what am I doing talking to myself? Is it even me in my head?
Like a freight train my thoughts tumble on. Now I’m telling myself that human advancement has been in effect to distance ourselves from the natural world that sustains us, our religions following suit or maybe leading. One thing for sure, we’re complicating the struggle to survive. The luminescence in this place momentarily glows brighter. If whoever’s in charge here knows I think this way, why not go pick on someone that doesn’t? Why can’t I get back to my wife and dog?
It’s taxing how this ancient speaker embroils my mind with bird’s nest thoughts. I’m in over my head, being more comfortable with natural world realities I understand. There’s more than enough evidence to support the concept of Nature’s balancing act, and evolution as the change agent in adapting life to ever-shifting conditions. I understand the implications, why can’t I leave it at that? That the ancient one’s eyes aren’t even acknowledging my questioning, is getting on my nerves.
More déjà vu as the flow of my thoughts seem to closely follow those of the ancient speaker, however knotty. Who is leading who in this indeterminate place?
Now the ancient speaker is delving into the war raging within every conscious-life being, between the greater good and individual desire. I’m reminded of the Two Wolves legend I was told as a child. Actually a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil in each of us, but’s more commonly apparent in others. I miss those simpler, early times with Shoshone friends, when the world ahead seemed so bright.
Recalling an elder’s teaching, I nearly break my silence with laughter. The elder had said Gray Wolf possessed the power to change animals and plants into other forms, and would do so based on behavior. As I remember his words, “Some, when they were good, Gray Wolf changed into birds with beautiful feathers and the power to sing. Some, when they were bad, he changed into smaller beings,” then raising his voice a notch added, “and if they were very bad into skunks.” Adding to my amusement, one of the men present, whose face had been streaked with black and white paint, changes into a skunk with a seeming look of indignation on its face. What? Does political correctness extend to this dimension, or wherever I am? I have to be dreaming, this is absurdity. I feel my arm wave it away, but strangely don’t see any physical movement on my part.
Back to the grind, the ancient one expands on the aspect of good and bad relative to excesses. That is in differentiating between what is in keeping with balance, and what destabilizes the community of life. With various life forms employed in the telling, here again shapeshifting occurs. Surprisingly by now, such seems almost rational. Am I bonkers?
One of the examples portrays a pack of gray wolves. The gist being that with plentiful game the wolves would gorge themselves for potential lean times. In the natural world this can be beneficial in prey population control, but also can be detrimental as the gray wolf population thrives and grows. I suppose the point is that Nature’s delicate balancing act is like a pendulum swinging both ways. Something we give little thought to, and if we do, tend to dismiss as being overly complicated by cascading effects throughout the larger family of life. But dammit I knew that, so who’s trying to impress who here? The luminescence in the lodge flickers once more, but doesn’t reflect in the ancient one’s eyes.
As if on cue a disturbing image dances before my eyes. That of the the skin and bones of wolf pups in an abandoned den. Heartrending in eliciting the thought of the parents lack of consciousness suffered by their offspring. Are we even meant to have enough consciousness? This is maddening. I feel moisture on my skin as if the air is laden with tears.
Annoyed as well, I’m wondering more and more why the waste of time on this old man? What the hell is to be accomplished? Let me get back to enjoy my remaining days with my wife and dog. Go pick on someone that needs to understand. So many things don’t make sense to me.
As if ignoring my thoughts and tiring receptiveness, the ancient one launches into yet another legend. I’m trying to tune him out, but can’t. It’s like dreams I used to have after military service. Why don’t I wake-up?
This legend supposedly taking place in the Northern Rockies, many lifetimes before I was raised there. In short, another culture invaded the region, killing animals for sport, and cutting and burning forests where other animals lived. Such incensed the Great Mystery to the point of flooding all but the mountain tops, and it was many seasons before the original inhabitants reestablished a respectful coexistence with the animals and plants. It strikes me more as wishful thinking, but in a pinch I guess could serve as yet another allegory of the consequences of hubris, not that we take them to heart. By now my mind is screaming, Enough!
The ancient speaker’s eyes lock with mine, and I’m drawn into those black orbs seeing wondrous natural settings, replete with all manner of life. My whole body revels in being, sensing I’m experiencing each unfolding scene first hand, as in one running with wolves, and another soaring with a golden eagle. When the ancient speaker’s eyes revert to opaqueness, and quiet ensues, I’m breathless but calmed.
For an unmeasured time I’m thinking not about why I’m here, but the course my life has taken, and the many other lives whose paths I’ve crossed. What a rollercoaster, if my father hadn’t been an abusive drunk, I might never have experienced the awe of wilderness on a grand scale. Nor without other twists in the road might I have been exposed to the insight of Shoshone culture. I might have been just another bored child of a well meaning workaday family, growing into the same kind of life, with meaningfulness obscured by horse blinkers. I’m happy life took the course it did, because now I can truly appreciate the real beauty in this world.
I become anxious again in sensing that without physically touching every psyche present is forming a circle with me included. Even more unsettling is the strangeness of the flickering shadows on the lodge walls, beginning to slowly rotate despite everyone remaining still.
When the lodge covering dissolves into a starry vista, and the ancient one melds into the vastness I panic, but can’t break the circle. And when my departed friend Derek appears in the circle, with a smoldering sage branch in hand, my consciousness spirals into a vortex.
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